Posts tagged 20th century history
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.

African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 - 1917

My name is Cynthia Hawkins, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies in the Department of  Transnational Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The title of my dissertation which I will soon defend is African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 to 1917. My interests are rooted in interdisciplinarity and include 19th century American, and African American history, African American art, museum history and function, race, gender, critical theory, visual art, and culture. Currently, I am the Gallery Director and Curator at SUNY Geneseo.

I  focus my research on how the visual arts have performed as an agency bearing for African Americans during the long 19th century. Of the four cases, studies I examine how student William H. Sheppard was inspired by the curiosity room's art and artifact collection at Hampton Normal School to, as the first African American Southern Presbyterian missionary to the Congo, purchase Bakuba art and donate it to the Normal school's collection. I then asses the ways it was used by the faculty to enable agency in their black students providing a meaningful historical and contemporaneous connection to Africa. The remaining chapters focus on artist Charlotte "Lottie" Wilson  (1854-1914) and  her work as art superintendent for the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick (1877 – 1968), and the Warrick Tableau (3/4 life size diorama) installation created for the Negro Building at 1907 Jamestown Ter-centennial, and still life and landscape painter Charles Ethan Porter (1847 – 1923). Each of these artists created works of art that the African American public found not only aesthetically pleasing, their works of art also encouraged others, regardless of difficulties, to pursue their own goals. 

To define agency in relation to the fine art object and its reference to capacity, intellectual acuity, and evidence of culture and status,  is a particular challenge because agency is, and has been generally of critical importance in Africa American life. Of interest too is Wilson's sense of her market. By working in a variety of genres, from painting portraits of well-known individuals who were important to African Americans to landscapes and still life painting she, "Lottie Wilson the artist"  (as the press frequently referred to her) ensured a ready audience. 

This dissertation has sparked new research interest, African American participation in the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention Institute Fairs, (1808-1983). Another is based on Charles Ethan Porter's tenure in New York City after he completed his studies at the National Academy of Design. From 1872 until 1880 Porter lived in Chelsea a New York City neighborhood which was to a great extent was multiracial. This finding has led to my interest in black life post-Civil War through to World War I, and this summer's research will culminate in a course I will teach in the fall.

- Cynthia Hawkins

Coming of Age in Jim Crow D.C.: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life

 Black Women’s Studies community, hello!! I’m Paula C. Austin. I’m Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Sacramento. I earned an M.A. in History at North Carolina Central University, and a PhD in History back in my hometown at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. I specialize in African American, gender, and urban history.

I am excitedly working on the last edits to my forthcoming book, Coming of Age in Jim Crow D.C.: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life (due out in fall 2019 from New York University Press). For this project, I mined E. Franklin Frazier’s papers at Howard University for his 1941 book on black adolescent personality development in D.C. Frazier argued that poor and working class young people were being negatively impacted by racial segregation and its attendant poverty and restrictions to resources. To Frazier, their personalities and beliefs about themselves, and thus behaviors and potential contributions to society, were severely at risk, if not already seriously damaged. While calling for an end to Jim Crow, he also advocated black cultural rehabilitation. After spending nearly five years with the (relatively) raw data of the 150 interviews of young people and their families, my research finds that young black, poor, and working class people in the nation’s capital were masterfully aware of and articulate about the incongruities of the city’s (growing global) symbolism of democracy and freedom and its restrictive racial geographies, racist policies, and practices. Coming of Age narrates the everyday lives of young Southwest D.C. residents like fourteen-year-old Susie Morgan and seventeen-year-old Myron Ross Jr.

Additional information available  here  through Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Additional information available here through Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

For example, Susie, who lived in an over-crowded 2 rooms in Clarks Court Alley in 1938, could see the dome of the Capitol building from her street. She shared stories about her movements throughout the city with her friends, dodging police interactions, fights with white boys, and street harassment from black and white men alike.  She articulated disinterest in marriage and could imagine a bright future for herself as a French teacher. She and her friends reterritorialized spaces like the Union Station Columbus Fountain and the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool as places of leisure and recreation, not only because few were available for and accessible to black children, but also because as Susie herself says, “‘we know we ain’t got no business in there, but that’s why we go in.”

 I happened upon this archive in my search for the names of the individuals who Frazier quoted at length in his Negro Family in the U.S. I wondered who these people were and what else they said. This project works to produce an intellectual history of folks we don’t often think of as intellectuals. Black, poor, and working class urban young people have long been, and continue to be portrayed as not possessive of (nor capable of) interiority. The young people whose voices I try to foreground in Coming of Age stress the generative capacities of an interior life. They were “thinkers, theorists, critics, and commentators,” as one of my anonymous readers said. (Thank you for this whoever you are!!) I hope these black young people’s voices make clear the critical role of ideas in navigating structural impediments to full identity formation and expression, even and especially for young black people.

 - Dr. Paula C. Austin, @ProfPAustin