Contextualizing from Slavery to Freedom in the Study of Post Emancipation Black Women's History

Article excerpt

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn [*]

Dr. Franklin, Dr. Moss and guests, I want to open by thanking the committee for inviting me to participate in this historic event. I am deeply honored.

My assignment was to look at the impact of From Slavery to Freedom upon historical interpretations of race, class and gender for the post emancipation period -- all in twenty minutes or less. Well when I recovered from the initial shock, I decided to look at race and gender, by specifically contextualizing From Slavery to Freedom in relation to the study of Black women's history. As I thought about my assignment, I recalled the text in relationship to my own training as an historian and to John Hope Franklin as a role model. So in the words of Mary Berry from last night, I too want to testify.

Professor Elsie Lewis introduced me to his book, when in the mid 1960s she taught the Negro in American History, a combined graduate/undergraduate course at Howard University, where she chaired the department. I was a History masters degree student at George Washington University, but I took her course as part of the Washington Graduate Consortium, because GWU did not offer such a course at the time. Lewis opened a new world to me, one that I had yearned to know since my undergraduate years at Queens College in New York, when there I first learned from a professor about the "Negro" historian John Hope Franklin. My introduction, at Howard University, to what we then called "Negro History" was by way of the 1964 printing of the second edition of From Slavery to Freedom, a cloth volume which I continue to use as a familiar beginning reference point for most of my research.

The mid 1960s was a great time to discover what my generation then called Black History, an era before the scholarly construction of Women's History as a legitimate field of study. Consequently, in the 1960s I looked for the invisible Black people in American History, not distinguishing them by class or gender, variables I had not yet learned to consider. As a result, my master's thesis was about nineteenth century "Negro" protest (my advisor would not allow me to use the word Black) and I made only passing reference to a few women, naively following the standard model that viewed leadership as male.

In contextualizing John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom we are reminded that his first edition met academia twenty-five years or a generation before Women's History scholars attempted to legitimize the field in the 1970s. Nonetheless, in even the earlier editions of this textbook, African American women appear in the book plates and scattered throughout the text, although professors and students prior to the 1970s rarely focused upon these Black women who appeared to be invisible to the profession. As you know, making the history of African American women visible was the task ahead, primarily for scholars of my generation.

In the early years of writing Black Women's History, many of us returned to the classic texts, such as From Slavery to Freedom, and found Black women who were heretofore unseen. For us, books like this were the starting point, guideposts which lead us to other resources, then on to the primary documents. Not all Black History texts published before the 1970s included women. However, From Slavery to Freedom was one that did.

In beginning and continuing to be the most widely used general Black History text, I never expected From Slavery to Freedom to include a Black feminist interpretation, or even to reflect Black women's historical analysis in any significant way for this is a text which surveys the general history of Black people primarily in the U.S. Nonetheless from the second through the sixth editions, one fourth of the visual representations found in the plates include women. All of the photographs, however, symbolize twentieth century events or historical personalities.

Briefly scanning the new two-volume, 50th anniversary printing of the seventh edition, I was delighted to find a larger percentage of visual representations of female images than found in former editions. …