Black Women Historians from the Late 19th Century to the Dawning of the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

From the 1890s through the first half of the 20th century, black women historians overcame a different set of barriers than their male counterparts in earning their doctorates, publishing, securing employment, receiving professorial promotions, and gaining respect in academia. In 1925, at the age of sixty-six, Anna Julia Cooper became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in history (University of Paris, Sorbonne). In 1940, more than a decade after Cooper's monumental accomplishment, Marion Thompson Wright became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in history (Columbia University) in the United States. The significant lapse in time between W. E. B. Du Bois earning his doctorate in history (Harvard University, 1895) and Anna Julia Cooper and Marion Thompson Wright receiving theirs is neither surprising nor difficult to explain. Historically, African American women have faced significant opposition from various fronts in pursuing and attaining higher education, especially in elite graduate programs. During what Rayford Logan deemed the "nadir of black life," the formative years for black intellectuals in William Banks's estimation, black women were widely and often systematically excluded from participating in mainstream U.S. and African American academic culture. (1) From the 1880s through the 1950s, as Stephanie Shaw has demonstrated, black women professionals were carefully socialized to work in the "feminized professions--as social workers, librarians, nurses, and teachers." (2) During these times especially, black women in the historical profession and academia as a whole faced multiple forms of oppression, including sexism and racism, and in some cases class discrimination. In response to this environment, Paula Giddings has suggested that black female intellectuals have historically possessed a distinct desire to persevere. "Since education is the key to the more attractive occupations, black women intellectuals have possessed a certain history of striving for education beyond what their gender or their color seemed to prescribe," Giddings observed. "Black men have not had the same motivation, historically, because they had a greater range of options." (3) Clearly, African American women as a group have historically struggled to acquire an education and join the ranks of professionally trained scholars in white and black communities. (4) During the era of segregation, they reacted to the pervasive exclusionary policies of the broader white society by promoting an ideology and strategy of self-help while also responding creatively to the stifling gender conventions within black communities.

Early African American female historians created a range of coping strategies, survival mechanisms, and alternative ways to approaching and writing history. While less than ten black women earned doctorates in history before the mid-1950s thereby gaining access in some form to academic sanctioning, many black women intellectuals published historical scholarship without extensive academic credentials or the approval of the mainstream academy. Other black women, such as self-proclaimed "bibliomaniac" and long time chief Curator for the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley (1905-1995), and black women librarians functioned as key resource personnel. (5) Before Anna Julia Cooper or Marion Thompson Wright, many non-Ph.D.-holding black women published noteworthy historical scholarship and engaged in the historian's craft. They created authentic ideological "parallel institutions" for black women historians. (6) The first major "parallel institution" for black women historians, the Association of Black Women Historians, was founded in the post Black Power era. (7) But, during the era of segregation, black women historians, though not bound together by a single organization or institution, often shared a common cause, approach, and set of ideologies which ran parallel to those discursive spaces and positions of power existing in white and black communities. …