Twentieth Century Rural Southern Black Women’s History

I am Cherisse Jones-Branch, the James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History at Arkansas State University.   My current research focuses on rural black women’s activism in Arkansas. I happened upon this area of research after I completed my first book Crossing the Line: Women’s Interracial Activism in South Carolina during and after World War II in 2014.  One of the women I discussed was a South Carolina Agricultural Extension Service home demonstration agent, who lost her job because of her Civil Rights activism.  It did not occur to me to inquire what a home demonstration agent was until after the book had gone to press. I decided instead to find out if they existed in Arkansas.  My plan at the time was to learn enough to write a paper for a local conference on race and activism in Arkansas. What I discovered during the course of my explorations is that home demonstration agents were employed by the agricultural extension service nationwide and their job was to ameliorate impoverished conditions among rural people.  In the South however, the extension service was racially segregated until 1964-1965 and black extension agents endured racism in their efforts to aid African American communities. While researching this topic, I co-edited Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times, published in 2018, which includes an essay, written by Debra L. Reid, on Mary Lee McCray Ray, Arkansas’s first home demonstration agent, hired in 1918.  

Black women have been overlooked in much of the extant historical scholarship on rural women.  When they do appear, which the exception of Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer, they have been discussed in the context of African Americans’ migration out of the South.  Or, they have been portrayed as oppressed and disempowered agricultural laborers. I assert that many rural black women chose to remain in the South where they utilized a locally crafted praxis to foment educational, political, and economic change in agrarian communities.  My third upcoming monograph, Better Living By Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas, 1914-1965, explicates their labors around the state but particularly in the Arkansas Delta.  I deconstruct notions of agrarian black women as victims and instead focus on their community advocacy as home demonstration agents, Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teachers, and Arkansas Association of Colored Women members who employed their skills and connections to white leaders to procure much needed resources for rural blacks.  I have reconstructed many of these women’s personal biographies as well as their complex organizational affiliations to unearth the many overt and covert ways they simultaneously challenged oppressive conditions and uplifted black communities in the Jim Crow South. I am hopeful that this work will encourage scholars to examine rural black women as change agents in other parts of the South and throughout the nation.

As of late, I am creating outlines for two book projects.  The first is a biography of Annie Zachary Pike, an activist, farmer, and former politician from the Delta town of Marvell, Arkansas. Ms. Annie, as she is locally known, was/is a large landowner who, in the 1950s and 1960s, hired sharecroppers to work on her land.  She was further, in 1972, the first African American woman to run for the Arkansas State Senate, as a Republican. Ms. Annie has personally asked me to write this book about her life. Doing so will allow me to considerably expand the article I wrote about her in the spring/summer 2018 issue of the International Journal of Africana Studies.  

The second project is an edited collection of essays that will encompass the histories and experiences of rural black women around the nation.  I am particularly excited about this project because nothing of its kind has ever been published. Most edited collections about rural women have only included one black woman’s story, if any at all.  Through this project I hope to engage a wide range of scholars who can speak to rural women’s diverse experiences across time, space, and geography. The research possibilities on rural black women are endless. Their stories are exciting and necessary. And I believe we must do our very best to remove them from the margins of African American, Women’s, and Rural history, exalt them, and paid heed to the very important lessons that they have to teach us.

— Cherisse Jones-Branch, Ph.D.