Woman of the Week

Woman of the Week
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writing for Justice

Ida B. Wells was a woman of substance, conviction and determination. Born just before the Emancipation Proclamation in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862 to freed slaves James and Elizabeth Wells, Ida was one of eight children. When she was 15 or 16 years old her parents and one of her siblings died in a Yellow Fever epidemic. At the risk of having her family torn apart even more Wells took it upon herself to get a job teaching so she could support her siblings and keep the family together.
Wells' formative years with her parents instilled in her a sense of conviction to fight for what she believed in and towards justice for herself and others. In 1880 she moved to Memphis and began taking classes at Fisk University. She was more interested in creating a life of purpose for herself than she was in securing a husband. She is quoted as saying "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."

While in her early twenties life took a definitive turn for Wells during a random moment in her daily routine. Accustomed to riding the train back and forth one day on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad train she was asked to give up her seat for a white man and move to the Jim Crow section. Wells refused even to the extent of biting the hands that tried to remove her. It took three men to forcibly move her. Aware that the Supreme court has recently banned segregation in public places Ida returned and hired a lawyer to sue the railway. She won her case in a local court but the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the ruling based on her supposed poor intentions. Ida B. Wells continued her defense and wrote a newspaper article about her treatment.

Her journalistic career took off. She had a voice with a message and blacks and Christians wanted to hear more from her. In 1889, she helped found an anti-segregationist newspaper in Memphis called Free Speech.Despite the growing public awareness Ida persisted in writing about racial injustice for newspapers in Memphis, Philadelphia and Chicago. When three of her friends who owned a black grocery store were lynched by w white mob under the pretexts of having raped a white woman, Ida turned her focus to researching and writing about the lynching epidemic. She believed that the root causes behind lynching had nothing to with interracial sexual relations but were more a result of white fear of black economic progress. Her encouraged blacks to stop feeding the local economy and to leave Memphis because it was not a place the promoted justice for blacks. Her own writing eventually drove her out of Memphis when her newspaper was destroyed and her life threatened.
Wells became very instrumental in educating both Americans and Europeans about lynching in the South. She became President of the Anti-Lynching Crusade and worked with Frederick Douglas to write about these issues. Along with other supporters Wells and Douglas boycotted the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While in Chicago Wells also helped start women suffrage organizations. She worked with Jane Addams to secure disegregation in Chicago's public schools.

In 1995 Wells married attorney and editor of the Chicago Conservatory newspaper, Ferdinand L. Barnett. He also happened to be the President of the Ida B. Wells club in Chicago. Wells had four children with him but always struggled to balance the demands of domestic life and her vocation to write and speak out for racial justice. She took her children on her speaking engagements and was one of the first American women to keep her maiden name in marriage, always recognizing her self-identity as a woman fighting for justice and equality.She covered this struggle in her autobiography under a chapter called "A Divided Duty."

Wells traveled to Europe twice speaking and raising awareness and support against lynching practices. Before her second trip she took the initiative to contact the editor of the Daily Inter-Ocean, the only white American newspaper writing openly and consistently about lynching. The editor asked her to write a column while she was away and Wells became the first paid black female foreign correspondent writing for an American white newspaper.

Ida B. Wells worked with and influenced the likes of Fredick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois and many others in the right for racial and gender equality. She was one of only two Black women to help found the NAACP in 1909. She was also one of the few women who spoke out openly against the pedagogical and sociopolitical beliefs of Booker T. Washington.

Wells worked till her end. In 1930 at the age of 67 she ran for state legislature in Illinois, becoming one of the first black women run for US public office. She died a year later in the midst of writing another of several books.

To learn more about this beautiful black woman please visit the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation created and maintained by the Ida B. Wells Family. http://www.idabwells.org/

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Woman Who Pushed the Limits: Pauli Murray

It happens to be Pauli Murray week here in Durham, North Carolina so it’s only fitting to make Ms. Murray our beautiful black woman of the week! She was a lawyer, poet, writer, educator, civil rights activist, and priest - the first black woman ordained in the Episcopal church. With every new woman I research I feel a little volt of excitement, hope, and inspiration. Women like Pauli Murray were challenging racism and sexism decades before the civil rights movement. It’s fascinating to me that most of us either are unaware of or forget that most world transforming movements of social and political justice begin long before the larger public gets a wisp of it. They begin with the hands, feet, and minds of countless, often unnamed brave, determined, passionate men and women of integrity who tire of seeing daily human injustices on a range of levels. It makes me think and wonder what injustices I see regularly but fail to be moved enough to take any steps against.

Anne Pauline Murray was born on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland. Though born into a loving two-parent home her childhood changed drastically at age three when her mother died from a brain hemorrhage. Her father had earlier suffered medical and mental complications from a bout with Typhoid fever. Unable to care for his six children alone he split up the family and sent Pauli to live with her aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. Pauli Murray's new family was made up of educators committed to civil and social justice who influenced her love of reading and learning from a very early age. The courage and fortitude she observed from her caregivers helped shape Murray's future work and determination to strive for what she believed was right and just. After receiving a mediocre education in the South because that was all that was available to blacks, she was determined to go to a good desegregated college, even if it meant repeating high school courses up north. She moved to Queens, and after a year of high school classes she enrolled at Hunter College in 1928. Four years later Murray graduated with honors and degrees in English and History. She was one of only four black students in a class of 247.

Her life and work experiences following college compelled her to further her education. She wanted to fight racial discrimination with her mind as well as her heart and hands. In 1938 she applied to UNC-Chapel Hill but was denied on account of her race, Murray wrote letters of appeal to the president of the college, members of the NAACP and even Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Though she wasn’t accepted to UNC she was able to secure her reputation with influential leaders as a black woman willing to fight for civil rights. It would not be the last time she called upon the United States President and his wife.

In order to better fight for civil rights Murray continued her education to become a civil rights lawyer at the historical black college, Howard University where she received her first law degree in 1944. Her thesis at Howard proposed a legal challenge to segregation based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all Americans. In 1951 she further developed this thesis into a book "States' Laws on Race and Color." It became the foundation of the NAACP's groundbreaking work in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which led to desegregation in public schools.

It was at the male dominated Howard that Murray truly encountered the new battle she was forced to fight, that of sex discrimination. This continued when she applied to Harvard Law School for her LLM, Masters in Law. She was the recipient of the Rosenfield Fellowship that usually secured entrance to Harvard, but the University was not accepting women. Murray again fought this decision and even got President Roosevelt to write a letter on her behalf. But it would be another two decades before women were admitted to Harvard. So Murray went to the University of California at Berkeley instead and received her Masters in 1945. But she would continue her fight against sex discrimination more professionally.

She spent the next several years working in law and even began chronicling her life story as it was wrapped in these social and civil injustices. Amongst many achievements she is well known for her memoir, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American family. The book explores issues of personal and societal cultural and racial relations in a country still struggling to find its identity post Civil War.

In 1961 while on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women Committee, Murray continued her fight for women's rights by cataloging all the ways in which state laws kept women from legal equality. She pushed for the Supreme Court to disqualify these laws based in the fifth and fourteenth Amendments. In 1964 she campaigned for sex discrimination in the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The bill passed and became law in 1965. To help ensure that this new law didn’t slip under the rug and become ineffective Murray got to work and wrote and published a ground breaking piece in the George Washington Law Review entitled, “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII." Then in 1966 she and 29 others founded the National Organization for Women (NOW)

Pauli Murray never seemed to tire of pushing the boundaries and cracking open the doors for those whom would come after her. After all that she had already accomplished in her lifetime she took another step. At the age of 62 she decided to go to seminary. She enrolled at the General Theological Seminary in NYC and received a Masters of Divinity degree. On January 8, 1977 at the National Cathedral of Washington D.C. Anne Pauline Murray became the first black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. But perhaps the most personally moving piece to this was that Murray celebrated her first Eucharist service in a little church back in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This happened to be the same church in which Murray’s grandmother, a slave, had been baptized in 1864. Pauli Murray recounts the significance of this in her autobiographical narrative,

"All the strands of my life had come together. Descendant of slave and of slave owner … [n]ow I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female - only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness."

Pauli Murray died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1985.

The Pauli Murray Human Relations Award was created in 1990 in Orange Country, NC. It is awarded annually to a youth, adult, and business that, according to the county's website, "have served the community with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights for all citizens.

Learn More - Visit Durham's "The Pauli Murray Project" website at http://paulimurrayproject.org/

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pioneering the Visual Arts-Meta Fuller

I have been reading about what First Lady Michelle Obama and her husband are doing in the White House with the arts. Mrs. O is quoted on the AMERICA.Gov blog post dated May 19, 2009 as saying, “My husband and I believe strongly that arts education is essential for building innovative thinkers who will be our nation’s leaders for tomorrow.” I am inspired by their efforts while saddened that I have to dig around on the internet to find out about these things. How many people know that on October 2, 2009 President Obama declared October as National Arts and Humanities Month? How many people know that last July Michelle Obama brought together representatives from major art institutions to the White House to discuss how to make the arts more accessible to people with disabilities? I didn't know that until recently. But maybe I'm the only one.

Anyway, this got me thinking about black women in the arts. I started doing a little research and discovered the life and work of Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, often considered one of the pioneering black women in sculpture and visual art in America.

Although often classified under the Harlem Renaissance, Meta actually did all her work in Paris, Pennsylvania, Boston and Framingham, MA. She was born in Philadelphia on June 9, 1877 and raised in middle class America by her father, a barber and a lover of the arts and her mother, a wigmaker. At the young age of 16 Meta Fuller won a three-year scholarship to study at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art. From 1899-1902 she studied in Paris at the Academie Colarossi and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, While in Paris she met African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner and received private instruction from French artist Auguste Rodin.
When Meta returned to the USA she found that the Philly art society was not ready to embrace a black female artist as openly as they had in Paris. But she persevered in her talents and passion for the arts. From 1903-1907 she continued her education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and in 1907 was commissioned to create art for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. Her art depicted the progress of African Americans since their 1619 arrival in Jamestown, VA. She became the first black female artist to receive a federal commission for her work.

In 1910, just three years later a warehouse fire in Philadelphia destroyed 16 years worth of her artwork. Despite this devastating loss Meta continued creating and turned her sights to art that celebrated African and African American strength of spirit, historical struggle and heritage. Her work depicted the suffering and joys of the human condition. She did not shy away from uncomfortable subject matter. Around 1914 she created one of her most famous pieces, Ethiopia Awakening (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.) This sculpture symbolized several things; the African American lineage to North Africa, the bourgeoning of African American culture in mainstream society, and the call for African Americans to recognize the intellectual and spiritual influence that Africa could have on their ongoing formation in racist America. Meta was one of the first female artists to encourage art with afro-centric themes, art that did not cater to white ideals. There were many factors influencing Fuller’s art including African American philosophers and educators such as Alain Locke and W.E.B. Dubois.

In 1937 Fuller created Talking Skull, (Museum of Afro-American History, Boston, MA) a powerful sculpture of a man kneeling on a corpse in apparent conversation with a skull. Other Fuller sculptures worth seeing are Silence and Repose, and Sorrow (private galleries.)

Fuller was also an accomplished painter. During the Civil Rights Movement she painted pieces to honor the men who walked with Dr. MLK across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9 (The Good Shepherd) and when the four little black girls died in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama Fuller painted The Crucifixion.

She died on March 18, 1968 at 90 years old. She was a wife to Dr. Solomon Fuller, a West African immigrant, and a mother of three.

Learn more about Meta Fuller online at The University of the Arts Library http://library.uarts.edu/archives/alumni/warrickfuller.html