Introduction: New Directions in African American Women's History

By Wilson, Francille Rusan | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Introduction: New Directions in African American Women's History


Wilson, Francille Rusan, The Journal of African American History


While African American women have always had a past, its meanings and witnesses have been contested since the first reported arrival of three African women in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. They became servants, wives, mothers, not wholly free but not yet slaves. They had been daughters, sisters, and were stolen, their birth names may have been lost or kept secret but are still finding echoes in our own fascination with non-Anglo-Saxon sounds. Our enslaved foremothers' sons and daughters would find their freedom challenged, their property and very persons the object of envy and theft. It is not by accident that in 1831 Maria Stewart, the first American woman to speak at a public meeting, was of African descent. Her pressing message, urging her sisters to participate in an historical struggle for self-definition, required her to challenge the gender conventions that molded white elite women to silent complicity, but denied oppressed black women the forum to protest their increasingly desperate predicament:

    Oh ye daughters of Africa awake! Awake! Arise! No longer sleep nor
    slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye
    are endowed with noble and exalted faculties. O, ye daughters of
    Africa! What have ye done to immortalize your names beyond the
    grave? What examples have ye laid for the rising generation? (1)

Each original essay in this Special Issue offers a compelling account of African American women who formed the "rising generation" of activists and educators in the early 20th century by a member of the "rising generation" of 21st century black women's historians. These studies chart new directions and provide perceptive analyses of the collective activities, individual scholarship, personal mentorship, and inspired teaching of specific, though representative African American women from the late 1880s through the post-World War II period. The three essays and two essay reviews in this Special Issue of The Journal of African American History bring to light specific moments in black women's activism, examining their political and professional careers during the era of Jim Crow, and further complicating our understanding of U.S. women in the public sphere.

June O. Patton's essay review on "African American Women, Civil Rights, and Black Power" examines Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin's Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights--Black Power Movement, a seminal collection in the expanding literature on the "Second Reconstruction" which witnessed the defeat and dismantling of the legal apparatus of racial segregation and the awakening of a new and more militant black consciousness. Finally, my essay review of Women and the Historical Enterprise in America by Julie Des Jardins provides an assessment of a recent monograph which attempts to integrate the history of white and African American women historians in the U.S. into a single narrative.

The first essay "Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1888-1940" by Professor Michelle Rief examines the internationalist concerns of African American women from the participation of black clubwomen in international women's conferences and their independent travels abroad beginning with the public speaking tours of Ida B. Wells and Hallie Quinn Brown in the post-Reconstruction era to African American women's organized attempts to influence U.S. foreign policy on the eve of World War II. In the late 19th century both Brown and Wells found themselves speaking out in defense of African Americans, particularly the women, and established the precedent for American women to address issues of race and gender when they traveled abroad as representatives of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Mary Church Terrell's ability and willingness to address in German those attending the International Congress of Women in Berlin in 1904 demonstrated her determination to represent the potential of women of color around the world. …

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