Dr. Sharon Harley, associate professor and chair of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, tackled the question of what makes a “race woman” Tuesday afternoon in her presentation entitled “Race Women: African American Women Claiming Dignity on the Public Stage.”
Her presentation focused on three black female civil rights activists: Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Maggie Lena Walker. Harley said each woman played an important role in fighting Jim Crow laws and promoting equality for blacks, especially among women. However, they had varied approaches to race work.
“Typically in the late 19th century, [race woman] meant an individual … who was both race conscious and devoted their time to uplifting their race. They exhibited differences in their leadership styles, differences in their class identity and their interactions with male and white Americans,” Dr. Harley said.
As the daughter of Robert Church, the daughter of a wealthy African American millionaire, Mary Church Terrell led a considerably more comfortable lifestyle than the other two women. She often passed for white in order to receive travel benefits that were denied to blacks, but even that privilege was to be challenged on one of her trips to Cincinnati.
“When a train conductor attempted to remove her from the coach reserved for whites, she was baffled by [his] behavior and she recalled, and I quote, ‘I can think of nothing, nothing that I had done wrong’,” Harley said.
Injustices such as these also led Terrell to become an advocate for civil rights. She studied the classics at Oberlin College in Ohio and was the first black woman to receive a college degree. Terrell also was the first president of National Association of Colored Women’s Club making more of an effort to unify whites and blacks.
Nannie Helen Burroughs was more radical in her denouncement of inequality. She was particularly critical of black male leaders whose sexism prevented black women from being more active in the fight against racism.
“On one occasion Burroughs said she had more brains in the fingers of her hand than a whole slew of black, prominent men in Washington, D.C.,” Harley said.
Maggie Lena Walker was the most inclusive of all three women when it came to men. She publicly denounced the treatment of black soldiers who served in the U.S. military. When she founded the Color’s Women Council of Richmond, she readily allowed men to join the organization. She was also the first woman to found a bank in the United States. Consequently, she became a national figure in the fight for black workers’ rights.
Her fervor for black women’s rights was demonstrated in a speech she gave at the 34th Annual Session of the Right Worthy Grand Council of Virginia where she commented that black women were “circumscribed and hemmed in, in the race of life, in the struggle for bread, meat and clothing.”
In the end, Harley noted that a “race woman” was not necessarily one type of person, but yet could have different styles and identity in terms of their lives.
“That individual was race conscious because they had pride in their African or African American heritage, regardless of their skin color.”