Walk into Radcliffe College's Schlesinger Library, put on a pair
of headphones, and you can hear stories from African-American women
who have made a difference in the world.
Take Lucy Mitchell, who has devoted more than 50 years to
teaching and improving child care in this country. Her
great-grandmother recalled being a slave on a plantation and seeing
a man go off to "take care of the United States" - and his name was
Then there's Christia Adair, a civil rights activist who worked
to abolish segregation. She talks of how her husband was a brakeman
on a train during Warren Harding's presidential campaign. When the
train stopped just outside of Houston, she recalls how Harding
reached over the heads of the black schoolchildren to shake hands
with the white schoolchildren. Ms. Adair declared that if this is
the way Republicans behaved, she was going to become a Democrat.
Such stories - part of a collection of recordings known as the
Black Women History Project - are a fascinating window on the
history of black women in the United States.
Since 1984, the photo exhibit - with brief biographical sketches
- has traveled to 52 sites in 22 states.
Now, after more than a decade of touring, "Women of Courage" has
The collection is not only a symbol of the civil rights and
women's movements, but also a trendsetter for other likeminded
Preserving past conversations
The idea for the project was sparked in 1972. Letitia Woods
Brown, professor of history at George Washington University in
Washington and a member of the Advisory Committee of the
Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass., suggested that the memoirs
of older African-American women who bettered their communities and
the nation be recorded and preserved.
From 1976 to 1981, some 72 women across the country were
interviewed under the careful coordination of Ruth Hill, an
archivist and oral historian at Radcliffe.
They were educators, lawyers, physicians, social workers, civil
rights activists, business women, and writers. Their stories range
from the historic (how Boston students called on Melnea Cass, a
Boston civil rights activist, during a sit-in) to the touching (how
as a little girl, Alfreda Duster would get on a step stool and comb
the hair of her mother, activist Ida B. Wells).
In 1980, the project took a visual turn. Photographer Judith
Sedwick approached Ms. Hill and offered to visually portray the
women, resulting in the highly celebrated exhibit "Women of
Courage." "This made the project public," Hill recalls.
It also spurred interest in further such projects. "The whole
field of oral history has just burgeoned," says Sherna Gluck,
professor of history and women's studies at California State
University, Long Beach. "It helps all of us to understand how we're
all part of the historical process."
Oral history, which today can include video- as well as
audio-taped interviews, has been vital in documenting the history
of people whose stories might not otherwise have been told.
This is particularly poignant for black women, including those
in the "Women of Courage" exhibit, many of whom were born before
the turn of the century. …