OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Alison M. Parker

Portrait of Alison M. Parker
Image Credit: Kay Hinton

Alison M. Parker is History Department Chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware. She has research and teaching interests at the intersections of gender, race, disability, citizenship and the law in U.S. history. She majored in art history and history at the University of California, Berkeley and earned a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University. In 2017-2018, Parker was an Andrew W. Mellon Advanced Fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University, where she worked on her biography of the civil rights activist and suffragist Mary Church Terrell: Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell (2020). Her op-ed “When White Women Wanted a Monument to Black ‘Mammies,’” appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review. Parker is the author of two other historical monographs, Articulating Rights: Nineteenth-Century American Women on Race, Reform, and the State (2010) and Purifying America: Women, Cultural Reform, and Pro-Censorship Activism, 1873-1933 (1997). She has also co-edited three anthologies and authored numerous articles and book chapters. While a faculty member at the State University of New York, College at Brockport, Parker was awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (2012). Her next book project is a study of the civil rights activist, Mary Hamilton, the first female field director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Parker serves as the founding editor of the Gender and Race in American History book series for the University of Rochester Press. As a co-chair of the Anti-Racism Initiative at the University of Delaware, Parker is building a coalition of students, faculty, and staff promoting a wide-ranging anti-racism agenda. She is trained to lead antiracism and racial justice workshops and community conversations and is working to recruit and retain a diverse community of faculty and students.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell would become one of the most prominent activists of her time. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell fought for equal rights for African Americans and women until her death in 1954. Author of the first full-length biography of Terrell, Parker reveals unexplored aspects of her life to provide a more complete account of a woman dedicated to changing the culture and institutions that perpetuated inequality throughout the U.S.
Monuments display power and shape our understanding of American history. In 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy convinced lawmakers in the U.S. Senate to pass a bill to create a “monument to the faithful colored mammies of the south.” This talk explores what this monument meant to black women, including the civil rights activist and feminist, Mary Church Terrell, and how they successfully fought against it.
Seeing voting rights as a collective responsibility to better the lives of the entire black community, activists like Mary Church Terrell fought for full citizenship rights, criminal justice reform, and anti-lynching legislation. Black women created the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, the first national secular black organization to advocate racial and sexual equality. This talk focuses on how and why black women led the long freedom struggle.
Biographies of prominent black women can reveal the challenges and the strength of those who faced the challenges of the double burden of racism and sexism. Determined to break the boundaries placed on them, black women such as Sojourner Truth, Frances Watkins Harper, and Mary Church Terrell entered political debates about race, legislative reform, public advocacy to achieve their reform goals. Each strove to free herself from racial and gendered restrictions, both legal and social, as she fought for freedom and citizenship for all African Americans.
Throughout American history, prominent black women have confronted the problem of whether to disclose or hide their bodies’ illnesses and pains. For most, the risk of disclosure seemed too great, especially if their physical problems had a sexual or reproductive dimension that could be construed in a racist light by the dominant white American society. This talk confronts the question of how, when, and why prominent black women chose to keep their pain and illness private and explores how their private health experiences directly informed and shaped their activism.
Black women of all classes have been at the forefront of movements for civil rights and economic justice. At the turn of the century, National Association of Colored Women leaders like Mary Church Terrell helped create day nurseries and kindergartens for working mothers as well as demanded justice for black women wrongly imprisoned for defending themselves against white men’s sexual assaults. Workers’ rights were an integral part of the black freedom struggle. Cross-class collaborations continued during the Cold War, as Terrell joined the picket lines of black women in the United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers union who refused to sign a required pledge of anti-communism.
Throughout her life, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) championed peace, human rights, national self-determination, and full citizenship for all, irrespective of gender or race. In the 1920s, the prominent clubwoman Margaret Murray Washington created the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, with Terrell as a vice president, to develop pan-Africanism, cross-ethnic racial understanding, and an anti-colonial perspective. International peace conferences and the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights provided entry points for Terrell and other black women to present their activism as part of a freedom struggle of women and people of color around the world.
Mary Church Terrell’s biographer discusses meeting with family members, experiencing the physical spaces in which Terrell lived, and working with the family to preserve and share their private collection of Terrell’s artifacts and papers with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Oberlin College Archives. These experiences, artifacts, and documents tell a more complete story of Terrell’s interconnected personal and activist lives.