BHM: Charlotte Hubbard

This post should have posted on 2/26/10 but was eaten by the wordpress fairies:

Charlotte Hubbard was the first black woman deputy assistant of state public affairs. At the time of her appointment, she was the highest ranking woman in a permanent position in the White House ever. She was also the first African American appointed to an important position at a television station when she began work as Community Service Director of WTOP-TV in Washington DC.

Hubbard joined the State Department in 1963 as Coordinator of Women’s Activities. While advocating for women’s issues she also initiated community meetings on Foreign Policy. These meetings were held in cooperation with community organizations around the country in order to better educated the N. American people about current foreign policy and make the role of the U.S. government and its policies more transparent; unlike the fireside chats of Roosevelt and the online videos of Obama, these meetings took place in local communities as well as the White House and involved an exchange of information between government and community leaders. In 1964, she was the moderator for the U.S. State Department Regional Briefing Conference which brought in diplomats from around the world.

Prior to her work in the government, she was a national community relations advisor for the Girl Scouts of America, where she not only honed her own leadership skills but that of other black women and girls.  In 1950, director of the Director of Field Relations at Tuskegee Institute. Her work at Tuskegee represented a long family history of work on educational equity and commitment to the education of black people in N. America. Hubbard had over 15 years of educational right’s advocacy under her belt before then-President Johnson appointed her to his administration.

She was also a strong advocate for workers rights. She spent two years in the leadership of the Political Action Committee of the Congress of Industrial Organizations a trade union organization that was one of the only large union organizations actively supporting African American workers. She talks about her time with the unions, as well as the rest of her career in an interview on file at Harvard as part of the Women in Federal Government Oral History Project.

During World War II, she worked tirelessly to ensure social programs for servicemen and women, especially African Americans struggling to survive. She was also a race and human relations consultant working on issues of racial discrimination in the military. Her work was instrumental in providing welfare and recreational facilities for service people and support staff. During the Vietnam War she worked to eliminate racial discrimination against African-American soldiers as well.

Despite her long term work with the U.S. government, her high ranking and historically groundbreaking position in the Johnson Administration, and her families long term involvement in the civil rights and black education movements, very little is actually available about Hubbard’s important contributions to black herstory online or in published book form. Her erasure is a great shame but perhaps this post will motivate one of you readers who is a grad student in history to think about a new topic … (Hint: there is a whole section of both her and her family’s papers on file at the Library of Congress)

Primary Text Post: The Combahee River Collective

Often when we talk about feminism, we talk about it as if it is a movement exclusively for mainstream centered identities within the larger category “woman”, ie that “woman” is in fact a vary narrow group that excludes most women in the world. What this operational definition of “woman” means for black women who fight for gender equality is that our primary texts remain hidden or the stuff of academe. While today’s primary text is one you should all know, I am sad to say it is not as widely read as you might think. Even people who have “heard of it” have not actually read the text thoroughly, if at all. So today’s BHM highlights a classic in black women’s organizing:

A Black Feminist Statement
From The Combahee River Collective

“We are a collective of black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974. During that time we have been involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while at the same time doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements. The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As black women we see black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.

We will discuss four major topics in the paper that follows: (1) The genesis of contemporary black feminism; (2) what we believe, i.e., the specific province of our politics; (3) the problems in organizing black feminists, including a brief herstory of our collective; and (4) black feminist issues and practice.

1. THE GENESIS OF CONTEMPORARY BLACK FEMINISM

Before looking at the recent development of
black feminism, we would like to affirm that we find our origins in the historical reality of Afro-American women’s continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and liberation. Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes. As Angela Davis points out in “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” black women have always embodied, if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and their communities in both dramatic and subtle ways. There have always been black women activists—some known, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, and thousands upon thousands unknown—who had a shared awareness of how their sexual identity combined with their racial identity to make their whole life situation and the focus of their political struggles unique. Contemporary black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters.

A black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women’s movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation. In 1973 black feminists, primarily located in New York, felt the necessity of forming a separate black feminist group. This became the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO).

Black feminist politics also have an obvious connection to movements for black liberation, particularly those of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of us were active in those movements (civil rights, black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives were greatly affected and changed by their ideology, their goals, and the tactics used to achieve their goals. It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was antiracist, unlike those of white women, and antisexist, unlike those of black and white men.

There is also undeniably a personal genesis for black feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual black women’s lives. Black feminists and many more black women who do not define them-selves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence.

Black feminists often talk about their feelings of craziness before becoming conscious of the concepts of sexual politics, patriarchal rule, and, most importantly, feminism, the political analysis and practice that we women use to struggle against our oppression. The fact that racial politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives did not allow us, and still does not allow most black women, to look more deeply into our own experiences and define those things that make our lives what they are and our oppression specific to us. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.

Our development also must be tied to the contemporary economic and political position of black people. The post-World War II generation of black youth was the first to be able to minimally partake of certain educational and employment options, previously closed completely to black people. Although our economic position is still at the very bottom of the American capitalist economy, a handful of us have been able to gain certain tools as a result of tokenism in education and employment which potentially enable us to more effectively fight our oppression.

A combined antiracist and antisexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to heterosexism and economic oppression under capitalism.

2. WHAT WE BELIEVE

Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to black women (e.g., mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldogged), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere. We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters, and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.

Although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with black men against racism, while we also struggle with black men about sexism.

We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political- economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe the work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products and not for the profit of the
bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinved, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and antiracist revolution will guarantee our liberation. We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that this analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as black women.

A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political. In our consciousness-raising sessions, for example, we have in many ways gone beyond white women’s revelations because we are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex. Even our black women’s style of talking/testifying in black language about what we have experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political. We have spent a great deal of energy delving into the cultural and experiential nature of our oppression out of necessity because none of these matters have ever been looked at before. No one before has ever examined the multilayered texture of black women’s lives.

As we have already stated, we reject the stance of lesbian separatism because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us. It leaves out far too much and far too many people, particularly black men, women, and children. We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how they act, and how they oppress. But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness, per se—i.e., their biological maleness—that makes them what they are. As black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dan-gerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic. We must also question whether lesbian separatism is an adequate and progressive political analysis and strat-egy, even for those who practice it, since it so completely denies any but the sexual sources of women’s oppression, negating the facts of class and race.

3. PROBLEMS IN ORGANIZING BLACK FEMINISTS

During our years together as a black feminist collective we have experienced success and defeat, joy and pain, victory and failure. We have found that it is very difficult to organize around black feminist issues, difficult even to announce in certain contexts that we are black feminists. We have tried to think about the reasons for our difficulties, particularly since the white women’s movement continues to be strong and to grow in many directions. In this section we will discuss some of the general reasons for the organizing problems we face and also talk specifically about the stages in organizing our own collective.

The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess any one of these types of privilege have.

The psychological toll of being a black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon black women’s psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist. As an early group member once said, “We are all dam-aged people merely by virtue of being black women.” We are dispossessed psychologically and on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change our condition and the condition of all black women. In “A Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood,” Michele Wallace arrives at this conclusion:

We exist as women who are black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.’

Wallace is not pessimistic but realistic in her assessment of black feminists’ position, particularly in her allusion to the nearly classic isolation most of us face. We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

Feminism is, nevertheless, very threatening to the majority of black people because it calls into question some of the most basic assumptions about our existence, i.e., that gender should be a determinant of power relationships. Here is the way male and female roles were defined in a black nationalist pamphlet from the early 1970s.

We understand that it is and has been traditional that the man is the head of the house. He is the leader of the house/nation because his knowledge of the world is broader, his awareness is greater, his understanding is fuller and his application of this information is wiser. . . . After all, it is only reasonable that the man be the head of the house because he is able to defend and protect the development of his home. . . . Women cannot do the same things as men—they are made by nature to function differently. Equality of men and women is something that cannot happen even in the abstract world. Men are not equal to other men, i.e., ability, experience, or even understanding. The value of men and women can be seen as in the value of gold and silver—they are not equal but both have great value. We must realize that men and women are a complement to each other because there is no house/family without a man and his wife. Both are essential to the development of any life.

The material conditions of most black women would hardly lead them to upset both economic and sexual arrangements that seem to represent some stability in their lives. Many black women have a good understanding of both sexism and racism, but because of the everyday constrictions of their lives cannot risk struggling against them both.

The reaction of black men to feminism has been notoriously negative. They are, of course, even more threatened than black women by the possibility that black feminists might organize around our own needs. They realize that they might not only lose valuable and hard-working allies in their struggles but that they might also be forced to change their habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing black women. Accusations that black feminism divides the black struggle are powerful deterrents to the growth of an autonomous black women’s movement.

Still, hundreds of women have been active at different times during the three-year existence of ou
r group. And every black women who came, came out of a strongly felt need for some level of possibility that did not previously exist in her life.

When we first started meeting early in 1974 after the NBFO first eastern regional conference, we did not have a strategy for organizing, or even a focus. We just wanted to see what we had. After a period of months of not meeting, we began to meet again late in the year and started doing an intense variety of consciousness-raising. The overwhelming feeling that we had is that after years and years we had finally found each other. Although we were not doing political work as a group, individuals continued their involvement in lesbian politics, sterilization abuse and abortion rights work. Third World Women’s International Women’s Day activities, and support activity for the trials of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, Joan Little, and Inez Garcia. During our first summer, when membership had dropped off considerably, those of us remaining devoted serious discussion to the possibility of opening a refuge for battered women in a black community. (There was no refuge in Boston at that time.) We also decided around that time to become an independent collective since we had serious disagreements with NBFOs bourgeois-feminist stance and their lack of a clear political focus.

We also were contacted at that time by socialist feminists, with whom we had worked on abortion rights activities, who wanted to encourage us to attend the National Socialist Feminist Conference in Yellow Springs. One of our members did attend and despite the narrowness of the ideology that was promoted at that particular conference, we became more aware of the need for us to understand our own economic situation and to make our own economic analysis.

In the fall, when some members returned, we experienced several months of comparative inactivity and internal disagreements which were first conceptualized as a lesbian-straight split but which were also the result of class and political differences. During the summer those of us who were still meeting had determined the need to do political work and to move beyond consciousness-raising and serving exclusively as an emotional support group. At the beginning of 1976, when some of the women who had not wanted to do political work and who also had voiced disagreements stopped attending of their own accord, we again looked for a focus. We decided at that time, with the addition of new members, to become a study group. We had always shared our reading with each other, and some of us had written papers on black feminism for group discussion a few months before this decision was made. We began functioning as a study group and also began discussing the possibility of starting a black feminist publication. We had a retreat in the late spring which provided a time for both political discussion and working out interpersonal issues. Currently we are planning to gather together a collection of black feminist writing. We feel that it is absolutely essential to demonstrate the reality of our politics to other black women and believe that we can do this through writing and distributing our work. The fact that individual black feminists are living in isolation all over the country, that our own numbers are small, and that we have some skills in writing, printing, and publishing makes us want to carry out these kinds of projects as a means of organizing black feminists as we continue to do political work in coalition with other groups.

4. BLACK FEMINIST ISSUES AND PRACTICE

During our time together we have identified and worked on many issues of particular relevance to black women. The inclusiveness of our politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the lives of women, Third World, and working people. We are of course particularly committed to working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression. We might, for example, become involved in workplace organizing at a factory that employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting hack on already inadequate health care to a Third World community, or set up a rape crisis center in a black neighborhood. Organizing around welfare or daycare concerns might also be a focus. The work to he done and the countless issues that this work represents merely reflect the pervasiveness of our oppression.

Issues and projects that collective members have actually worked on are sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape, and health care. We have also done many workshops and educationals on black feminism on college campuses, at women’s conferences, and most recently for high school women. One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to publicly address is racism in the white women’s movement. As black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a non-hierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice. As black feminists and lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.

BHM: How Wide the Diaspora

While I have kept these posts largely about N. Americans, I think it is only fair to include Aída Cartagena Portalatín in this year’s Black Herstory Month/ Latinegras Project posts. Portalatín was a Dominican feminist poet who wrote poetry about women, race, immigration, and imperialism. Her poems consistently centered the female experience and were informed both by her own travels, as a student in Paris, Santo Domingo as a transnational cityscape (ie a place where people from around the world interact and engage in discussion of ideas about identity and travel), and her friends, colleagues, and family members who had moved permanently to the U.S. Thus her poems represented the viewpoint of mothers whose sons had experienced racism abroad, or women whose longing had made them susceptible to exploitation, elder women who had been abandoned for younger ones, etc. At the heart of her work was a preoccupation with the limits of freedom and how freedom was both gendered and raced.

She has published in numerous anthologies and has a wide body of work most of which has not been translated to English. Her most famous poem Una Mujer está Sola appears below:

Una mujer está sola. Sola con su estatura.
Con los ojos abiertos. Con los brazos abiertos.
Con el corazón abierto como un silencio ancho.
Espera en la desesperada y desesperante noche
sin perder la esperanza.
Piensa que está en el bajel almirante
con la luz más triste de la creación
Ya izó velas y se dejó llevar por el viento del Norte
con la figura acelerada ante los ojos del amor.
Una mujer está sola. Sujetando con sus sueños sus sueños,
los sueños que le restan y todo el cielo de Antillas.

Seria y callada frente al mundo que es una piedra humana,
móvil, a la deriva, perdido el sentido
de la palabra propia, de su palabra inútil.
Una mujer está sola. Piensa que ahora todo es nada
y nadie dice nada de la fiesta o el luto
de la sangre que salta, de la sangre que corre,
de la sangre que gesta o muere en la muerte.
Nadie se adelanta ofreciéndole un traje
para vestir una voz que desnuda solloza deletreándose.
Una mujer está sola. Siente, y su verdad se ahoga
en pensamientos que traducen lo hermoso de la rosa,
de la estrella, del amor, del hombre y de Dios.

In 1981, she published her epic poem Yania Tierra, which retold the history of the Dominican Republic from the perspective of a woman. In the poem, Yania, the protagonist, is a female personification of the nation harkening back to the original declarations of independence in which the island nation as female was celebrated rather than negated as weak and violatable. Infusing both a female perspective into the “his story” of the nation and recasting the nation as a whole allowed Portalatín to insert women back into Dominican history at the same time that she questioned machista nation building at home and abroad.

You can read more of her poetry here.

Portalatín was also an active member of the international community. After her post-graduate studies in Paris, she was appointed to UNESCO and sat on the jury of the 1977  Casa de las Américas awards for Latin American poets. In 1969, her work was up for a prestigious Premio Seix Barral International Literary Award in Spain. She also traveled frequently in Africa, Latin America, and Europe engaging in feminist encuentros, expanding her knowledge of global blackness and colonial histories, all of which informed her work. Thus her work has inspired many black female poets and other artists in and outside of the Dominican Republic.

She also taught about colonialism and history at UASD for several years, encouraging a new generation of intersectional scholars who embrace blackness and feminism in their work.

BHM: Sistahs in Business

Dolores Duncan Wharton was the first African American and the first woman, and subsequently also the first African American woman, on the Board of Gannett Company and Director of Kellog Foundation. She is the former chairman and chief executive officer of the Fund for Corporate Initiatives, Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to strengthening the role of people of color and women in the corporate world.In the 1980s she founded a training program for African Americans in business. The program mentors African Americans interested in advancing in business and also provides them with needed training and the knowledge of several African American business leaders. Wharton explains:

We have young people in the pipeline. What we are interested in is nurturing that black talent, enhancing it, broadening it, strengthening it right up the pipeline. (Ebony Oct 1987)

Her business interests have also transferred to equity and ethics work in education. Wharton has been committed to the advancement of women and poc in education through work at Tufts, MIT, and SUNY Albany in the areas of ethics and business. (It should be noted however, that while she is opening doors for women and people of color in business, Wharton does subscribe to laissez fair capitalism that this blog has often argued disempowers workers and women globally. Wharton’s focus on liberal economics is tempered by work on human rights in China and ethics in the U.S.)

Wharton also contributed a considerable amount to the inclusion of women and poc in the arts. Her time on the Board at Garnett Company is not only a business first but also a publishing first. She sat on the Board of NPR, which sadly has very little diversity in its final product. And she also worked specifically on inclusion and diversity in issues through her directorship at Albany Institute of History and Art for 7 years, her Boardmembership at the MOMA, and her 6 year appointment to the National Council for the Arts. Wharton was appointed to the Council by President Gerald R. Ford in 1974.

BHM: Do you Know Who This Important Figure in Black Herstory Is?

Today is your second chance to win a gift certificate to Powell’s Bookstore, hopefully to buy a book about black women’s history.

The Contest: The first person to correctly identify the woman pictured below and her significance to black herstory wins a $20 gift certificate to Powell’s Books

The Time Frame: you have until 12pm Monday 2/22/10 to guess (even if some else has already guessed before you, weigh in, because you never know who will get the most accurate info)

The Hint: Her speech about the hypocrisy of N. American racism and its connections to slavery, civil rights, and the prison industrial complex aired on independent and some major radio stations across N. America in the summer of 1973.

Do You Know Who this Important Figure in Black Herstory is?

Assata Shakur

The Winner: Sasha for her answer “Assata Shakur, who is a political activist and a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. She was forced into political exile because the United States government falsely convicted of her of shooting a New Jersey police officer.” (full BHM bio forthcoming)

Uva: Rocking the Afra-Latina Poetry Beat

Uva is an Afra-Latina/Latinegra spoken word performer who combines the  various elements of the black diaspora, African American political consciousness, Spanish verse, and West Indian beats, into a tapestry of words about blackness primarily in the Americas. She is deeply committed to Latin@ leadership and women’s rights and works to encourage these through teaching and the arts. She is the Founder and Director of Creative Bulla!—a nonprofit organization, that provides workshops and events for organizations interested in promoting cultural awareness and personal growth through the arts. Her work focuses on the Afra-Latina experience, ie the intersections of race and gender, and the empowerment that comes from embracing oneself and one’s identity.

In 2005, she created a one woman show entitled “UVA: Observations in Black & Blanco.” The performance highlighted spoken word from her CD “Labor of Love.”  Through the blend of music and poetry, she described her multiple journeys from a girlhood in Panama to life as an adult in Philadelphia. One of my favorite pieces is “Yo Soy” which honors her grandmother and talks about the African influence in Latin America and Latin@ cultures from a distinct female experience.

She currently teaches at the Philadelphia Arts and Education project empowering other Latinegras to find their voices and speak their truths.

BHM: Black Girl Scouts and the Powerful Black Women Who Made it and Other Empowering Things Happen

Despite their stated commitment to the empowerment of all girls, Girl Scouts of America has a bad name amongst many of the feminists I know and teach; however, for me, Girl Scouts of America has been a place where both I and my peers learned invaluable skills denied us elsewhere. More than that, in doing research about key African American women in Girl Scouts, I uncovered a herstory of black female leadership that included radical involvement in the betterment of black people’s lives. While most people think Girl Scouts are just the girls in green uniforms pushing thin mints like drugs on the corner or outside the bank, the reality is that Girl Scouts of America was actually founded to encourage female leadership and civic duty. Not only have they helped girls with public speaking, survival skills (including how to find clean water, identify edible plants, and build a makeshift dwelling when lost in the woods) that are still considered largely the domain of men, and girls self-esteem, but they are actively involved in service work with the elderly, differently-abled people, low income and “poor performing” schools, animal rescue shelters, homeless shelters, etc. They provide opportunities for girls to work with and/or learn from women working in industries where we are underrepresented, who own their own businesses, or work for places like NASA, NGOs, or the White House, encouraging girls to challenge glass ceilings and reach for their dreams. And they have worked, with inconsistent results, to be more inclusive, have more cultural education components, and to deal critically and more often with global girls’ issues, including the oft forgotten issue of differently-abled girls’ empowerment. So today, my slightly biased black herstory post (I was a girl scout) goes out to the Black Girl Scouts, both the black girls who have been members since the segregated troops which helped lay the ground for integration of Girl Scouts and its ongoing efforts to serve girls regardless of race or country of origin living in the U.S. (1) and the black women who took groundbreaking leadership positions.

African American Girl Scout Troop in Dixie 1930s

According to GSA, the first African-American Girl Scout troupe was formed in 1917. However, all other historical records point to the first troupe having been formed in 1924 by Josephine Groves Holloway. (2) Holloway received a degree in Sociology from Fisk in 1923 after putting herself through college. Immediately following graduation, she became a Girls’ Worker at Bethlehem Center and attended training to become a Girl Scout Leader at George Peabody College for Teachers. She successfully started the first troop for African American girls in 1924.

Unfortunately, that troop would shut down less than 2 years later after Holloway was forced out of her position by her supervisor. She was told the reason for her dismissal in 1925, shortly after she got married, was that a married woman “did not have enough time to dedicate to the girls.” The woman appointed by her supervisor, focused her energy elsewhere, whether this was by design or not we will never know. Her lack of attention meant the troop ceased activity within the year.

There were no other approved troops again until 1943, when Josephine Holloway finally got approval to start a new group after years of lobbying. Between 1925 and 1943, Holloway tried repeatedly to get approval for an African American Girl Scout troop but was denied by the national and local Girl Scout leadership. They even refused to let her have an old Girl Scout manual. However, Holloway started a “Girl Scout like” organization with special uniforms similar to those of the Girl Scouts and taught them the basic ethics, organization and leadership skills, etc. of the Girl Scouts using an old handbook her husband acquired in Chicago. By 1943, the girls had been trained in the exact same way as Girl Scouts and the leadership of GSA could see no way around including them in the organization and officially recognized troop 200 of Tennessee.

A year later, the GSA hired as an organizer and field adviser to the Girl Scout Council, making her the first African American woman to hold a high ranking staff position in GSC and the first black female exec in Girl Scouts in Middle TN. Her hire represented a critical paradigm shift in the racial thinking of the organization, partially inspired by troop 200. By the 1950s, GSA was actively desegregating Girl Scout troops. By the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. had referred to them as “a force for desegregation [in the South].” (GSA website)

white and black members of Girl Scouts sit together at camp in Aug 1941

When Holloway died, she gave Girl Scouts of America her family farm to convert into a Girl Scout camp. The farm became one of the “most modern and ADA compliant camp sites” (GSUSA website) that Girl Scouts own. The camp comes full circle for Holloway who was honored with a campsite named after her when Girl Scouts officially integrated their troops to honor her efforts toward the equality and inclusion of black girls. In 2008, the camp hosted Josephine Holloway day in which women and girls were taught the history of African American women and girls involvement in Girl Scouts, provided opportunities to learn activities that girls learned in the 1920s and 30s primarily by local African American women artists and small business owners, and watched a documentary on Holloway’s life.

In 1969, Dr. Dorothy Ferebee became the first African American Vice President of Girl Scouts of America. Dr. Ferebee’s brought with her, her considerable leadership skills and commitment to the health and well being of African American children forged in a long career of healthcare advocacy in the American South.

Dr. Ferebee graduated 5th in her class at Medical school in 1924 but, like other African American doctors and nurses, was denied internships at white hospitals. She interned at the Freedman’s Hospital in DC instead. The Freedman hospital was one of the largest and one of the only hospitals serving African Americans in the 1920s in the Capitol. Interning there, impressed upon her the need for more medical options and services to African American patients, so she opened her own clinic in the same area in 1925 and both she and her staff provided free rides to the clinic for emergencies, because there were no ambulance services for African Americans either. The more she worked in DC. the more concerned about the welfare and health of African American women and children. Speaking about her time at both her internship and the clinic she said:

“So I learned a great deal about the needs of the negro people in Washington, because most of them were concentrated in Southeast. So it was there that I learned there was very little opportunity for the children. Even though they were in school, they weren’t learning anything. And then it occurred to me, there’s something wrong with this town. Anytime a child goes hungry, and the mother has to work and leave her child home like this we need some place for children. We need a day care center.”

To meet the need of female patients and their children, Dr. Ferebee started the Southeast Neighborhood Society, with playgrounds and day care for children of working mothers.

In 1934, she was appointed Medical Director of the Mississippi Health Project, a program that operated during the summers with a mix of physicians and nurses from the North and the South. Despite having funding, supplies, and permission to build 5 clinics in Mississippi, Dr. Ferebee said the seldom met the needs of the African American community because of Plantation owners interference. While they allowed the clinics to be built, they did not allow farm workers to leave the plantations or access needed medical care during work hours and often harassed them about going on off hours as well. Since farm workers could not go to the clinics, their children also seldom got the medical care they needed because there was no one to take them. Dr. Ferebee worried about what this meant for both the health and safety of young girls, so she decided to turn the supplies and funding into mobile clinics. Instead of watching amused plantation owners thwart black people’s health, Dr. Ferebee made house calls and regular on-plantation health check ups for 7 years. And while there, she used the opportunity to educate plantation owners about health care benefits and equality.

Under her leadership, project workers launched vaccine programs against smallpox and diphtheria throughout poor communities. They also treated venereal disease and educated communities about malnutrition while counter the impact of widespread malnutrition due to discrimination and poverty.

Dr. Ferebees commitment to women and children was also evidenced in her work for women’s organizations prior to becoming the Vice President of Girl Scouts of America. In 1949, she was elected President of the National Council of Negro Women after having been a member for several years. The Civil Rights organization focused on discrimination against women in education, employment, housing, voting, the military, and health care. It advocated for their equality as both African Americans and women. She also founded the Women’s Institute to advocate for women’s health care and gender inclusivity in health education and research. While a member of the faculty at Howard, she not only taught about women’s health but was also a member of the Pan-American Women’s Alliance and the White Houses Children and Youth Council, sharing her expertise about the needs of African American women and girls health and the health needs of poor women.

Her time at Girl Scouts of America helped shift the organization’s focus to include more health care related service learning and a wider body of knowledge about intersecting oppressions related to gender, poverty, and discrimination.

Finally, Dr. Gloria Randall Dean Scott became the first African American President of Girl Scouts in 1975 and remained in the position for 3 years. Dr. Scott was the first African American to get a degree in Zoology from Indiana University. She was an avid advocate for education and educational equity for both women and African Americans as well, getting her Ed degree from IU and working as President of Bennett College for women for nearly 14 years. Her commitment to women’s empowerment included starting the Women’s Leadership Institute that helps women succeed in business and leadership positions. She also created/opened the Center for African Women and Women of the African Diaspora to ensure that black women had a place that encouraged, supported, and mentored them in ways that women’s resource centers on campus often fail to do.

Here she is talking about her work to help encourage and support African American and African women’s leadership:

Dr. Scott joined Girl Scouts in 1953 after saving money from a part time job to afford dues and a uniform. Her troop was segregated but provided her with key opportunities to work with black female leadership and her black female peers. Her commitment to the empowerment of young girls and her own leadership skills, caught the eye of the Girl Scouts and she was nominated for several positions within the organization including: President of the Negro Girl Scout Senior Planning Board, delegate to the Region V Senior Girl Scout event in 1954-1955 at University of Oklahoma, and adelegate to the Texas State Senior Girl Scout Conference in Austin, Texas in 1955. This involvement made it possible for Dr. Scott to help encourage the desegregation of Girl Scouts.

In 1969, Dr. Scott participated in the first integrated Triennial Meeting for Girl Scouts of America. The meeting was preceded by the GSA leadership voting to open 15 positions for women of color on the Board of Girl Scouts. As 1 of 2 existing women of color on the Board, Dr. Scott had high hopes as a result of this decision not only for African American women but also women of color. In an NPR interview done much later, she talks about why it was important for there to be more diversity and acknowledges that diversity meant all women of color

Dr. SCOTT: When I joined the national board in 1969, there were two African-American women out of 65 members of the board, and so the board made a deliberate decision that it would create 15 positions so that a critical mass of African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American women would join the board out of 65 and could therefore be influential.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though, Dr. Scott, though; why do you think it’s important to the Scouting organization that it be diverse?

Dr. SCOTT: Because we all bring, as human beings, skills an abilities that are the same, and the color of the skin, and the background in culture means that this is the world, and certainly this is us in America, deliberately created for us in America.

It is important for all kinds of girls, white girls, Asian girls, Hispanic, black, to understand that the abilities of everybody is needed by Girl Scouting and that the color of the skin is a factor that they bring genetically with them. (excerpt NPR interview on Girl Scouts)

She describes the highs and lows of the event with regards to race and racism like this:

I remember the Girl Scout’s Triennial Meeting of 1969 in Seattle, Washington, I was excited about it because it was going to be the first interracial Triennial Meeting for the Girl Scouts. There were several black leadership organizations invited – NAACP, Urban League Black Coalition and Seattle’s Today Show host who was a black female,” she reflected. “Sixty cities were invited to see our One Hundred Voice Choir and extraordinary flag ceremony. However, a hush went through the crowd when the curtains opened to reveal an all white choir and all white flag girls. (San Jacinto Council of the GSUSA)

The continued failure to be inclusive on the part of the Girl Scouts was not overlooked by Dr. Scott or the other black women in attendance. Instead, they got together and formulated the “Guidelines for Scouting for Black Girls” which included 18 points of improvement needed for the organization to attract, retain, and meet the needs of black girls and women involved in the organization. It also called upon the organization to truly committed to its stated goal of serving “all girls” and to stop assuming that diversity statements, or intentions about inclusivity, translated to actually doing the work of equality and empowerment for all girls.

When Dr. Scott was nominated for President of the organization 6 years later, she wrote back with a simple question: What is the status of black girls in Girl Scouts.

Her commitment to the equality and inclusion of black girls in Girl Scouts has been invaluable from those first segregated days in the 1950s. Like the other African American women leaders highlighted here, Dr. Scott’s commitment to ensuring young black girls have a place to feel empowered, learn new and critical survival skills, and hone their leadership skills in a multicultural environment has never wavered.

The willingness of all of the black women leaders, and those whose names never made into history, to address racism and help Girl Scouts of America recognize, respect, and embed racial diversity within their commitment to girls’ empowerment continues to make it possible for young black girls to find their way in a world that often discounts them. Today African American girls use their involvement in Girl Scouts to help rebuild New Orleans, address the education gap for young black girls, encourage girls to invest in Math and Science and become involved in local elections and politics, etc.

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  1. The website says that they “serve all girls” and has no language regarding cis or trans, so I have written this post accordingly.
  2. I was disappointed to discover that the official website of Girl Scouts of America contains several errors about African American leaders on their Black History Month pages, including the date of the first black troop and the middle names/last names of its African American pioneers; the names included on the site do not reflect marriages or other editions to their names after their time as leaders. I was also disappointed to discover that when you run a search on the leaders they highlight, the only pages that come up are the Black History month pages that actually don’t tell you anything except their titles and the years they served.

BHM: Call for Authors, Call for Activism

Today’s BHM comes from M. LaVora Perry, the Founder of Forest Hill Publishing. Perry was invited by a different press to write a book about several generations of black people in a single family who needed organ transplants centering around the struggle of one black mother & her attempts to recover from transplant surgery while worrying about her son’s new diagnosis. The story was meant to aid the family and shed light on the struggles of African Americans who

“represent a disproportionally high number of people in need of transplant —and die because they did not receive them—and a disproportionately low number of people who serve as organ and tissue donors.”

When the publishing company who had commissioned the book went under in 2006, the book was shelved. In the three years that followed, it became clear that African Americans continued to die for lack of transplant while the media and the medical community largely remained silent and inactive around saving black lives. So Perry, has just resurrected the project to be published by her own publsihing company, Forest Hill Publishing.

Working from a place of community and communal action and uplift, Perry has put out a call for stories from African Americans awaiting transplant or who have received a transplant themselves or have a family member who has received one. Perry hopes that by including multiple personal and political stories about the intersections of race-medicine and the dire need for change in the transplant industry with regards to donor cultivation and information in the black community, that the tide will turn.

Please see the CFP Below and circulate to your readers, colleagues, and friends:

Forest Hill Publishing will launch a book relaying true stories of transplant recipients and donors of color. People of color represent a disproportionately high number of those who need organ transplants–and die because the didn’t receive them–and a disproportionately low number of people who serve as organ and tissue donors. Click here to read more about this reality in a article from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

Our hope at Forest Hill Publishing is that our upcoming book will inspire many more people of color to become organ and tissue donors.

If you are an organ transplant recipient or donor, or a relative or friend of one, and you’d like your story considered for this project, please send a 2 – 5 sentence description of your transplant experience in a message with “Transplant Story” in the subject line to email @ foresthillpublishing.com. To raise awareness about this project, Forest Hill Publishing reserves the right to publish, on the Internet and elsewhere, brief comments sent to us in response to this call for submissions

If you are selected, we will send you a questionnaire, which must be completed in the English language and returned to us by April 1, 2010. If you have questions about this project, please email us.

She has also collaborated on a series of youtube videos to help inform the black community about issues relating to our need for more involvement in and death from lack of transplants seen below:

M. LaVora Perry is a modern day black female activist who is using the power of the word to educate, advocate, and save lives.

BHM: Bonnie St. John

Bonnie St. John is best known for her Silver medal in at the 1984 paraolympics and her time on staff in the Clinton White House. St. John was the first differently-abled person (regardless of race or gender) to attend the Ski Racing Academy in Vermont. The school’s assumptions about able-bodiedness meant that Bonnie was often disabled by her environment (I am using political definition here, see fn 1); despite being a limber athlete, she fell down regularly trying to get to the cafeteria because many of the walkways were gravel & she could not feel the ground shifting beneath her temporary leg, then she broke her new artificial leg on a soccer field that was not evened out properly. Despite the ablism in her environment, Bonnie held her own with able-bodied competitors and faculty alike and went on to win a silver medal in the Winter paraolympics in 1984. Had she not slipped on a particular ice patch on the trail, a patch that many others also slipped on, she would have won gold. She often refers to the experience like this:

People fall down; winners get up. (paralympics.org)

Avoiding the “Super Crip” (fn 2) story, St. John’s many interviews about being a differently-abled (fn 3) athlete, highlighted the mindfulness required by people disabled by ablism rather than positing herself as an exception who overcame what others simply fail to do. She pointed out that she had to make a conscious decision to become an athlete and then actively woo coaches and opportunities to compete. Often she trained alongside able-bodied people in arenas designed exclusively for them; ie, facilities that were only minimally ADA compliant if at all. For her, watching able-bodied athletes be recruited and groomed for the Olympics, taught her to be her own best advocate, to think critically about her decisions, and to pursue her dreams with the passion of someone who understand that even the most basic things (like getting to lunch) could not be taken for granted.

Her drive did not stop with her athletic competitions. St. John also credits being involved in sport at the intersections of race, gender, and ability as teaching her the discipline and the drive she needed to graduate from Harvard and Oxford and become a Rhodes Scholar. Her academic and Olympic accomplishments caught the eye of then-President Bill Clinton. He appointed her to his cabinet as Director of the National Economic Council, making her one of the first differently-abled African Americans to hold a cabinet position in the White House.

St. John is also deeply committed to the success of women and girls. She credits her nurse at Shriner’s hospital for helping her to succeed

“She kept telling me, ‘you have to push harder, you have to push harder.’ … She taught me some really important lessons (ibid)

and wants to offer the same kind of help to other women and girls. Thus she became a motivational speaker who has published 4 books encouraging heterosexual women to build happy and productive relationships, and be successful at business and parenting at the same time. When she got divorced, she also sat down to write her own story of child hood sexual abuse and marital struggle to motivate other women to put their emotional and physical health first. That same book, How Strong Women Pray, included interviews with 25 other women who combined their spirituality with strength and healing in order to become successful. St. John wanted to highlight women’s voices from all areas of life to inspire other women, not just posit her own experience as a guide. She continues this desire for a chorus of diverse women and experiences as a guide and helpmate to other women and girls in her 2009 project with her 14 year old daughter. The two have teamed up to write a book about inspirational women leaders and are asking young women to nominate people to be included based on having been inspired by them. In working with her daughter, St. John also wanted her to be inspired by other women and the power of feminism. So far they have interviewed the current President of Liberia Ellen J. Serleaf, designer Eileen Fisher, and Noemi Vivas Ocana a Managua resident who, after putting herself through school only to be downsized at her job, became a small business owner and leader of her community’s lending circle which empowers women through shared wealth and small business loans.

St. John’s activism has also always included the empowerment of women and girls. In 2008, she was the guest speaker at the same Shriner’s Hospital where she had recovered from her amputation as a child. Afterward she talked about how the hospital is a place of both profound hope and despair because of the ways that disability is treated in our society and the fears embedded in not being able-bodied. For St. John these fears take on particular gendered aspects as young girls are taught both that their self-worth is tied up in attractiveness and that differently-abled bodies are not attractive nor should differently-abled women have or express sexuality.

“I worked so hard over the years, to feel strong and feel beautiful, to get away from the feeling of being an awkward disabled kid. I could smell the fear and discomfort. It was a battleground. And I thought, ‘I’m going in. And I’m not leaving any soldiers behind.’ (MLive.com)

As part of her talk, she reminded young differently-abled girls that they were beautiful, desirable, and had the right to dream of the same companionship as able-bodied girls and women.

Bonnie St. John’s powerful example, deep commitment to intersectional women’s issues, and her understanding about the importance of both global feminism and inspiring and caring for the next generation of young women, make her a quintessential figure in black herstory. As one of only a handful of prominent black differently-abled women she is also someone we should all know.

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footnotes

  1. I am using the term “disabled” politically here in the tradition of radical disability feminists to mean “The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical [and/or cognitive/developmental/mental] impairments and thus excludes them from  mainstream society” (Oliver 1992 as quoted in Clare Exile & Pride Southend:1999, 6)
  2. “Super Crip” is a term used to describe people whose stories and images have been used to make temporarily able-bodied people feel good about themselves and the lives of differently-abled people rather than question the ableism that makes differently-abled people’s success seem like such an anomaly. In other words, the story focuses on individuals “over coming disability [a physical or mental impariment]” rather than on them succeeding in an ableist and therefore disabling world. (It should be note that Bonnie St. John does tell her story utilizing elements of the “super crip” and certainly reports do as well; however, the more secure she has gotten with herself and her herstory the more her narrative has let go of these elements for a more nuanced look at her life. She has always included discussion of ableism and its impact on her and society in her work.
  3. some people with disabilities have taken exception to my use of the term “differently-abled” as opposed to “disabled”. Differently-abled is the term I use to describe myself and it is the prevailing term used by disability rights activists in my region of the country; for us, the term recognizes that there are differences in our abilities that represent diversity within the community of people with disabilities and diversity amongst us and temporarily able-bodied people. It was also an effort to destabilize hierarchies between people who were born differently-abled and people who became differently-abled and between those with visible disabilities and those with hidden ones, while also recognizing that these differences meant that we experience disabling environments and ableism differently.


BHM: You Be the Judge

Constance Baker Motley was the first African American (1)  female Federal Judge and the first black woman voted into the New York State Senate. Prior to becoming a judge she worked on issues of Civil Rights and education, including briefs on Brown vs Board of Education.

State Senator Constance Baker Motley with Mayor Wagner, February 7, 1963

Judge Motley has actually been involved in several black herstory moments. Besides the firsts listed above, she was also:

  • the first African American woman accepted at Columbia Law School
  • the first woman (regardless of race) to hold the position of Manhattan Borough President
  • among the first African-American women judges to be appointed to a senior judge position
  • the first African American woman to serve as Chief Judge

Motley’s story is one of the great N. American rags to riches stories. Born to immigrant parents from the small island of Nevis, she started her work career as a maid at the local Community House. Inspired by African American authors writing about equality and racism, Motley gave a speech at the Community House about the need for African Americans to be included in leadership and leadership decisions. That speech impressed a local member so much that he actually paid for her to go to college.  Motley quickly advanced, becoming the first African American woman to be accepted into Columbia Law School.

During her time working for the NAACP, Motley won 9 of 10 civil rights cases. Her work on Brown v Board Education not only helped ensure equal access to education for African Americans but her work with James Meredith helped ensure the beginning of the end of racial discrimination in admissions at the university level as well. She worked on three key decision making cases related to educational discrimination through admissions discrimination at the university level involving state schools in Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. She also worked on a similar discrimination case in South Carolina involving Clemson University, one of the schools whose recent black face incidents is depicted on my John Mayer post for this month. Finally, she successfully argued for 1,000 youth to be reinstated at school in Birmingham, Ala., after the local school board had expelled them for demonstrating.

Motley was also a consummate civil rights activist. At the age of 15 she became President of the local NAACP Youth Council. She visited Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail and helped him get permission to march in Albany Georgia. She also spent time talking with Medgar Evers just before his murder. She was one of the strong lawyers who risked their own safety to represent the Freedom Riders; in her autobiography, she said it never occurred to her that Civil Rights could fail or that her work would not lead to change. That change was more important than threats she received. And her legal work included wins that helped end discrimination at lunch counters and restaurants in Birmingham and Memphis respectively. She was also a church girl, and she sang civil rights songs in the bombed churches of the era to celebrate the resilience of black communities and mourn the passing of bombed adults and children.

Her civil rights work extended to both women’s and gay right’s as well. Motley worked on cases that allowed female reporters into locker rooms; their exclusion had previously justified not hiring or promoting female journalists in sports journalism. Her rulings also upheld the right for gay protesters, excluded from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to protest outside the Cathedral involved in excluding them.

Charlene Hunter-Gault, whose case to be admitted to UGA after being turned down for being black, described Motley like this:

“It was as if she would lull them into an affirmation of their own arrogance, causing them to relax as she appeared to wander aimlessly off into and around left field, until she suddenly threw a curveball with so much skill and power it would knock them off their chair.” (Hunter-Gault 993 In My Place)

Like so many of us, Motley understodd that at the intersections of racism and sexism is the strongly held belief that black women are both stupid and incompetent and used it to her advantage on a regular basis. She was once quoted as saying that Thurgood Marshall thought these intersections would protect her in the turbulant South as well, though she understand that being black woman in N. America did not protect you from abuse and often opened you up to more of it.

In a speech in which she accepted the Florence E. Allen Award, Motley talked at length about the women who had influenced her and kept her going in the face of both gender and race discrimination. She explained that she was even discouraged from going to law school by a supervisor who respected her work, because “women never amount to anything in the law.” It was her belief in the equality of women and people of color and the companionship of other black and female activists that made her push on. For her these women were mentors,  door openers (whose race had got them in and whose gender gave them sympathy for other women locked out), and fellow activists striking at the multi-layered glass ceiling in society and the law.

Judge Constance Baker Motley died at the age of 84 in 2005. Her legacy to black herstory, particularly with regards to civil rights in education, is immeasurable.

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note

  1. Mosley is actually Caribbean American, as both her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nevis but identifies as African American.

imge

  • Motley and the Kings at an SLCC conference
  • Motley/MSNBC/unattributed