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Lifetime Learning

Segregating History

By: Corinne Field, Lecturer, Corcoran Department of History and Women, Gender & Sexuality Program

For historians who focus on the lives of African American women, late winter is a busy time.  First come invitations to celebrate Black History Month in February, then requests to honor Women’s History Month in March. As this year’s celebrations wind down, it is worth considering the often hidden connections between these two commemorative events.

picture-335Put simply, we celebrate black history and women’s history in separate months because both events began at the height of Jim Crow segregation in the 1910s.  The idea for a national celebration of women began in 1909 with a call by the Social Party of America to honor women as workers and citizens.  While socialists made some efforts to include black workers, their main focus was on the needs of white, working-class women.  As a result, Women’s Day celebrations marked the contributions of white women, but did little to address the particular history and experience of African American women.

Meanwhile, in 1915, the historian Carter G. Woodson—for whom UVA’s African-American and African Studies program is named—and the minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.  In 1926, this group choose to celebrate Negro History Week in mid-February to honor both Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays.  As educators and community leaders, black women often took the lead in organizing commemorative events, and they ensured that some of these focused on the contributions of black women.  During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, celebrations of black history grew in scope and importance culminating in 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially declared February Black History Month.

Celebrations of Women’s Day, meanwhile, followed an entirely distinct trajectory.  The holiday faded in the US after World War I as the federal government suppressed socialist organizations, but remained a vibrant event in Eastern Europe every March.  In 1975, feminists convinced the United Nations to revive celebrations of International Women’s Day in the West on March 8.  Educators and community called on school boards to honor women’s history in March to coincide with this event and in 1981 Congress requested the President declare “Women’s History Week.”

Every year since, community groups, grade schools, and colleges have celebrated Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March.  A few black women inevitably make an appearance in both events.  In school hallways around the country, pictures of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman appear next to Frederick Douglass one month and Susan B. Anthony the next.  This mode of commemorating our history gives the impression that the only connections between the black civil rights and women’s rights movement were a few black women brave enough to join both.

women-historyThis is an entirely inaccurate impression of both women’s history and black history.  From the American Revolution through the Civil War, the movements to end slavery and win women’s rights were closely intertwined.  As I document in my recent book, The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age and the Fight for Equal Citizenship in Antebellum America, early activists focused on questions of equal rights and opportunities broadly, arguing that all Americans should be able to claim the same rights and opportunities as adults without regard to race or sex.  Black men such as David Walker and Frederick Douglass deeply influenced the way white activists such Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony thought about adult citizenship.  White female intellectuals such as Margaret Fuller, meanwhile, talked about self realization in ways that resonated with black activists.  Black women such as Maria Stewart and Frances E. W. Harper developed a vocabulary for talking about human equality that encompassed both the goals of antislavery and women’s rights.  In short, the connections between these movements were deep and long lasting as many activists—not just a few black women—debated ideas and strategies across the color line.

These activists did not always agree with each other.  Indeed, tensions often ran high as some black men phrased their claims in terms of equal manhood rather than personhood and white women expressed deeply racist ideas about the superiority of northern European peoples.  Despite acrimonious disagreements, black and white activists continued to collaborate, debate, and join with each other throughout the nineteenth century.  During the 1890s, however, the rise of Jim Crow racial segregation both North and South increasingly divided black and white activists from each other.  By the 1910s, white and black activist intellectuals shared an impulse to call for national commemorations of disenfranchised citizens, but they did so from separate organizations divided by race.  A century later, it is time for us to look beyond these divisions and recover a more complicated story of the American past in which we acknowledge the historical force of racial and gender segregation but also celebrate the moments when many people—not just a few exceptional black women—collaborated to gain equal rights and opportunities for all Americans.  Perhaps it is time to call special attention to the turn of the calendar between February and March, taking a moment to honor and remember that the connections between black history and women’s history are much deeper and more complex than our separate commemorations reveal.

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