Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower

Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower

Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower

Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower


The field of black women's history gained recognition as a legitimate field of study late in the twentieth century. Collecting stories that are both deeply personal and powerfully political, Telling Histories compiles seventeen personal narratives by leading black women historians at various stages in their careers. Their essays illuminate how--first as graduate students and then as professional historians--they entered and navigated the realm of higher education, a world concerned with and dominated by whites and men. In distinct voices and from different vantage points, the personal histories revealed here also tell the story of the struggle to establish a new scholarly field.

Black women, alleged by affirmative-action supporters and opponents to be "twofers," recount how they have confronted racism, sexism, and homophobia on college campuses. They explore how the personal and the political intersect in historical research and writing and in the academy. Organized by the years the contributors earned their Ph.D.'s, these essays follow the black women who entered the field of history during and after the civil rights and black power movements, endured the turbulent 1970s, and opened up the field of black women's history in the 1980s. By comparing the experiences of older and younger generations, this collection makes visible the benefits and drawbacks of the institutionalization of African American and African American women's history. Telling Histories captures the voices of these pioneers, intimately and publicly.

Mia Bay, Rutgers University
Elsa Barkley Brown, University of Maryland
Leslie Brown, Washington University, St. Louis
Crystal N. Feimster, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Sharon Harley, University of Maryland
Wanda A. Hendricks, University of South Carolina
Darlene Clark Hine, Northwestern University
Chana Kai Lee, University of Georgia
Jennifer L. Morgan, New York University
Nell Irvin Painter, Newark, New Jersey
Merline Pitre, Texas Southern University
Barbara Ransby, University of Illinois at Chicago
Julie Saville, University of Chicago
Brenda Elaine Stevenson, University of California, Los Angeles
Ula Taylor, University of California, Berkeley
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Morgan State University
Deborah Gray White, Rutgers University


Deborah Gray White

I know of more than a score of girls who are holding positions of high
responsibility, which were at first denied to them as beyond their reach. These
positions so won and held were never intended for them; to seek them was
considered an impertinence, and to hope for them was an absurdity. Nothing
daunted these young women[.] Conscious of their own deserving [they] would
not admit or act upon the presumption that they were not as good and capable
as other girls who were not really superior to them.
—Fannie Barrier Williams, 1905

Some might think Fannie Barrier Williams’s 1905 commentary on “the colored girl” a peculiar place to begin this examination of late-twentiethcentury African American women in the historical profession. But Williams’s words, as well as her experiences, resonate in the autobiographies compiled in this volume and in the history of black women in the historical profession. Williams was, after all, an educator and a tenacious trailblazer for professional African American women. She was, like the Chicago “girls” she refers to, audacious. One need look no further than her refusal in 1894 to withdraw her nomination for membership in the all-white, very prestigious Chicago Woman’s Club. White friends had put her name forward, and despite the fact that there were no other African American members, Williams had not expected to have to fight publicly for over a year to gain membership. She certainly did not count on being the only black member for more than thirty years. Despite her impeccable credentials, she met opposition at every turn, opposition fueled by prejudice. But she, like the “score of girls … holding positions of high responsibility,” held fast to her sense of herself as deserving and capable and did not retreat. So did the African American women historians whose stories unfold here.

They are the spiritual descendants of women like Williams. This is not hyperbole because Williams and her cohort of intelligent, educated, articulate women were revisionist historians before the history of black women was recorded. Their very bodies stood in opposition to a national script that held black . . .

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