I want to continue sharing brief information on the black women I’ve learned about during Black History Month. The more women I’ve researched this month, the more I have discovered. There is an embarrassment of riches in this area that has been unknown to me. One reason is the overshadowing, during their time, of black women by white women they worked jointly with such as Josephine Ruffin who worked with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone to form the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. There is also the simple fact that women and African Americans are not fully present in the typical history curriculum. To anyone who thinks that we don’t need to emphasize Black History or Women’s History, I challenge you to do what I have done this month and search the internet for one person they have never heard of each day. You may be surprised.
Now for more black women from the SSS Facebook page. There are two women who should be remembered as the earliest African American female physicians: Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Rebecca Cole.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 – 1895) was the first African-American woman to become a physician. She graduated in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College. After graduation and the end of the Civil War, she worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and other community groups to provide medical services to freed slaves in Richmond, VA. Later she returned to practice in her home in Boston, MA. Most of what we know about her comes from the introduction to her book “Book on Medical Discourse,” written from her clinical notes and published in 1883.
Rebecca Cole (1846 – 1922) was the second African-American female doctor. She graduated in 1867 from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and received her clinical training at Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She practiced medicine for over 50 years working primarily with destitute women and children.
Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825 – 1907) was the first African American women to become a college faculty member. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1856 and two years later took a position at Wilberforce College. The college had to close during the Civil War due to lack of funds, but for the next 40 years Sarah Jane was a teacher and school principal in Ohio and, after the war, in the South.
In 1868, Sarah Jane married the Rev. Jordan Winston Early, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and continued teaching and working with him in his ministry. She also traveled and lectured as the national superintendent of the Black division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1894, she published a biography of her husband including both his life as a slave and his ministry.
Fannie Williams (1855 – 1944) was a teacher, lecturer, and social reformer. She helped organize Provident Hospital and its Training school for Nurses in Chicago (both interracial institutions.) After speaking at both the World’s Congress of Representative Women and the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, she was in great demand as a lecturer.
Fannie helped found the National Association of Colored Women, was among the founding members of the NAACP, and became the first Black member of the Chicago Woman’s Club. She wrote frequently for Chicago newspapers and in 1924 became the first African American and the first woman to be named to the Chicago Library Board. She also believed in a fully integrated women’s movement and was chosen as the only African American to eulogize Susan B. Anthony at the 1907 Women’s Suffrage Convention.
Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907) was an American sculptor of African American and Native American descent. She attended Oberlin College where she began sculpting and quickly became successful. She held her first solo exhibition in 1864 and produced popular works such as medallion portraits of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.
In 1865 Lewis went to Rome to study where she spent much of her adult life working and studying. One of her major works was a marble sculpture called “The Death of Cleopatra.” It was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, this monumental piece (3000 lbs) was lost for almost 100 years. It was rediscovered, although covered in paint, and finally restored and donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000) was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Raised in Chicago, she had approximately 75 published poems by the time she was 16. In 1943, she received her first award and in 1945 her first book “A Street in Bronzeville” was published to critical acclaim.
“Very early in life I became fascinated with the wonders language can achieve. And I began playing with words.” Gwendolyn Brooks on Poetry
In 1950, Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with her book “Annie Allen.” She received many other awards including the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement, the National Medal of Arts, and was honored as the first Woman of the Year chosen by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.
Mary Frances Berry, born Feb 17, 1938, was Provost at the University of Maryland, Chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Assistant Secretary for Education in the US Dept of Health, Education, and Welfare. She received her education at Howard University, and the University of Michigan, obtaining Ph. D. and J. D. degrees.
Berry was one of the founders of the Free South Africa movement and she was arrested and jailed several times due to her support of the cause. She was in Capetown in 1990 to greet Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison.
In 1980, Berry was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a Commissioner on the US Commission of Civil Rights. She was later fired by President Reagan for criticizing his stand on civil rights and won her reinstatement through the federal courts. She was appointed Chairperson of the Commission by President Clinton and served until her resignation in 2004. Since then she has been a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) was an American poet, essayist, and activist of Caribbean descent. She was politically active in civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements. Later she also became active in lesbian and gay rights causes. She co-founded “Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press” with author Barbara Smith, the first US publisher specifically for women of color. She was the State Poet of New York.
“I am defined as other in every group I’m part of”, she declared, “the outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.”
Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She believed that the typical feminist approach of defining things and issues based only on gender was simplistic, if perhaps necessary, and that there were other issues of difference that needed to be addressed.
Violette Neatley Anderson (1882 – 1937) was an African American attorney and judge with many “firsts” to her name. Anderson was born in London and moved to the US as a young child with her family. After graduating from Chicago Law School in 1920, she became the first African American woman admitted to the Illinois bar, the first female city prosecutor in Chicago, the first African American woman to practice law in the US District Court Eastern Division, and the first African American woman admitted to practice before the US Supreme Court.
Pearl Mae Bailey (1918 – 1990) was known as an actress and singer, but she was much more. She wrote 4 books and at 67 earned a degree in Theology from Georgetown University. At 15, she won an amateur contest and decided to pursue a career in entertainment. Beginning in vaudeville, she made her Broadway debut in 1946 in St. Louis Woman. She won a Tony Award for the lead role in the all-black production of Hello Dolly in 1968. Her career was varied including both movie and television, voices for animation, even commercial jingles. During WW2, Bailey sang with the USO; she also sang in nightclubs with some of the greats including Duke Ellington.