New Perspectives on the Archival Recovery of Black Women's History

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Biography/Memoir; Women's History


The papers in this session attend to the myriad issues around methodology and archives that historians confront in writing the lives of black women and their families across space and time. How can scholars attend to the erasures that shape how black women’s stories are told in the historical narrative? What is the analytical potential gained when definitions of archives expand to include not just traditional repositories but bodies, performances and domiciles? How do the power dynamics of being a subject v. an object in the historical record shape the memory of black women’s narratives of survival and resistance? How have the institutional imperatives of assembling archival collection shaped black women’s ability to have a say over how they are remembered in the historiography?

Interrogating the traditional and self-fashioned archive, these papers excavate black women’s interiority, especially their everyday and longstanding concerns across historical time periods.
In the face of the brutalities of sexual exploitation, the restrictions of heteronormativity, and rampant anti-communism, these black women struggled to define freedom for themselves and their communities through radical political organizing, cultural expression, and self-determination.

Raising important questions about black women’s experiences--during enslavement, the end of the Progressive Era, and within twentieth century social movements-- these papers help us better understand the histories of black families in the North, queer history, and the black radical tradition.

Papers Presented

Northern Slavery, Gradual Abolition, and the Archive of Black Women and Families in Pennsylvania

Hannah Elias was one of wealthiest black women in turn-of-the-century New York City, and her life was publicly chronicled by the press during a 1904 interracial sex scandal. While her attempt to defend herself in court illuminates significant revelations about the Progressive Era, her family genealogy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is equally informative and fascinating. Her family history offers a telling perspective on the myriad challenges to black freedom in Pennsylvania. Although Elias was born in 1865 Philadelphia, her story begins with family, specifically her maternal grandfather, David Lewis, who was born in May 1786 to “Negroe Debe,” an enslaved woman in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This paper focuses on the process of recovering Elias’s family history as a way to think about the challenges of black freedom in the North. The archives of black women and family also opens up a new perspective from which to examine northern slavery and gradual abolition. How might we understand Pennsylvania enslavement through Debe’s encounters? In particular, when Debe’s enslaver documented David’s 1786 birth with the partial statement, “David, a Molattoe Male Child,” how might we begin to understand the sexual vulnerability and isolation that many enslaved women experienced on local farms in the rural North? What can David’s experience of gradual abolition, where he was indentured to his mother’s enslaver until he was 28, tell us about the struggle for black freedom and the complexity of family life?

Presented By
Cheryl D. Hicks, University of Delaware

Everything Left to Prove It: Two-Faced Archives in Black Queer Women’s Histories

During the late Progressive Era, entertainer Alberta Hunter consciously fashioned herself as a performer in the emerging persona of the working-class blues woman, archiving herself within that now familiar tradition. However, throughout the remainder of twentieth-century she meticulously curated her life using a concept I call the two-faced archive, a practice of publicly cultivating two distinct yet intersecting personas. Her songs, sultry performance style, and her feminine-presenting body constitute the first archive. She simultaneously created a second archive offstage in the form of letters, journalistic work, and her global travels as a black queer woman. Though she remained a private individual, by deliberately recording these archives with biographer Frank Taylor in the 1980s, she demonstrates a self-awareness of her role in history.

Current historical research on black women’s lives benefits from a proliferation of black women’s literary and historical work that emerged in the 1970s. Despite this materialization, a robust archive of queer black women’s histories in scholarly writing remains lacking. My research contributes to the historiography of black queer women’s history by contextualizing Hunter’s self-making practices through the purposeful archiving of her own life. Beyond double-consciousness, dissembling, and shifting, Hunter carves a path forward for black women in the American tradition of individualism and existentialism. In rejecting the trope of the tragic blueswoman and claiming race womanhood, her two-faced archive forces a reconsideration of the two most familiar readings of black women’s lives.

Presented By
K.T. Ewing, Tennessee State University

Keeping House: Patricia Robinson’s Home Archives and the Preservation of the Black Radical Subject

Patricia Murphy Robinson was a leading black socialist feminist theorist whose essays about birth control, the Vietnam War, black women, and urban poverty appeared in many feminist magazines and essay collections in the 1960s through the 1990s. When Robinson died in 2013 she left behind a house full of the evidence her lifelong engagement with radical politics: datebooks, correspondence, tax records, writings, photographs, political posters, record albums, and her vast personal library of hundreds of books, magazines, journals, and newspapers from around the world. Her spiritual practices, homemaking traditions, the items she collected, and the material culture of her life can also be gleaned from the contents of her home. Robinson’s “home archive” reveals the myriad ways that black radical women engaged with politics beyond the private-public divide. Her personal history is a portal through which the print culture, homemaking practices, and intellectual engagements that sustained black radicalism for over half a decade can be understood. Analyses of the archival recovery of black women’s history have centered on erasures, silences ,and the culture of dissemblance that shielded black women’s inner lives from stereotype and scrutiny. This paper explores the potential of writing black women’s lives centered on an archive steeped in their quotidian self-making practices. It considers the challenges and opportunities that come along with the institutional archival preservation process and offers a methodology for locating black women’s radical politics that centers epistemologies sourced from their own lives.

Presented By
Robyn C. Spencer, Lehman College

Session Participants

Chair: Nicole Myers Turner, Yale University
Nicole Myers Turner is an Assistant Professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her current research project explores how Virginia’s free and freed people used their churches, conventions and religious educational institutions to define political strategies, gender roles and community membership. The study delves deeply into the limited but extant records of black religious institutions and incorporates GIS mapping techniques to visualize the church and political networks that supported black participation in electoral politics. Through this local study, that incorporates examination of election data, church membership records, and religious networks she offers a social and political history of late-nineteenth century black religion. Her other research and teaching interests include African American religious history, black transnational religious and political networks, women and gender in history. She teaches courses that explore the intersections of race, gender and class in the African American experience including the African American history survey, and courses on Jim Crow America. She is also interested in the growth and potential of digital humanities for expanding the explanatory power of historical research.

Commentator: Elsa Barkley Brown, University of Maryland, College Park
Dr. Elsa Barkley Brown teaches in the Departments of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. She is the co-editor of the 2-volume Black Women in U.S. History: An Historical Encyclopedia and of a 2-volume textbook, Major Problems in African American History. Her articles on African American women’s history have been awarded the A. Elizabeth Taylor Prize for best article in southern women’s history, the Letitia Brown Memorial Publication Prize for best article in black women’s history, the Martin Luther King Jr. Prize for best article in African American history, and the Anna Julia Cooper Prize for distinguished scholarship in black women’s studies. She has held fellowships from the W.E.B. DuBois Institute, Harvard University, and The American Philosophical Society. A past president of the Southern Association for Women Historians, Professor Barkley Brown currently serves on the Editorial Board of Women and U.S. Social Movements, 1600-2000.

Her interests are in African-American political culture, with an emphasis on gender. This takes her in exciting and varied directions from a focus on citizenship and rights to literal and conceptual maps of the daily lives and worldviews of African Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to explorations of contemporary African American women visual artists’ and filmmakers’ engagements with history. She is conceptually most interested in unraveling the oft unseen work inherent in our daily lives – the work of friendship, the work of day-to-day political organizing, the work of creativity, and most importantly, the work of collectivity. A driving passion of all her explorations is a firm belief that community is an ongoing process located/rooted in the work that people do to continuously create it and possible only when gumbo ya ya (everybody talks at once) rather than conventional consensus is given full rein. Central to this is a concern for the work of narrative –from the stories black mothers have traditionally told their daughters to the retellings of histories that often undergird political rhetoric and, especially, the cherished stories students bring into the classroom and hold to so intently.

Presenter: K.T. Ewing, Tennessee State University
K. T. Ewing is an Assistant Professor of History at Tennessee State University. As an alum of Xavier University of Louisiana and a third generation HBCU graduate, she is dedicated to preserving black cultural and intellectual spaces. Her research interests include African American history, women and gender studies, and the influence of blues culture in American society. Her current book project, Remember My Name: Alberta Hunter and the Two-Faced Archive, is a biography examining the life of Alberta Hunter, a twentieth-century blues and cabaret singer from Memphis, Tennessee.

Presenter: Cheryl D. Hicks, University of Delaware
Cheryl D. Hicks is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in American History from Princeton University. Her research addresses the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the law. She has published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and the Journal of African American History. Her first book, Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) received the 2011 Letitia Woods Brown Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians. Her current project, “Black Enchantress”: Hannah Elias, Interracial Sex, and Civil Rights in Jim Crow New York” explores the life of one of the wealthiest black women in turn-of-the-century New York City in order to illuminate the shifting meanings of sexuality, criminality, and black civil rights struggles in Gilded Age and Progressive-Era America.

Commentator: Tiyi Morris, Ohio State University at Newark

Presenter: Robyn C. Spencer, Lehman College
Robyn C. Spencer is a historian that focuses on Black social protest after World War II, urban and working-class radicalism, and gender. In 2018-2 019 she was Women’s and Gender Studies Visiting Endowed Chair at Brooklyn College, CUNY and is currently an Associate Professor of History at Lehman College.

Her book The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland was published in 2016. It was a finalist for the “Benjamin Hooks Institute National Book Award” sponsored by the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis and received Honorable Mention for the Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize sponsored by the Association of Black Women’s Historians. She is working on two book projects. To Build the World Anew: Black Liberation Politics and the Movement Against the Vietnam War explores how and why the anti-imperialist struggle for Vietnamese independence became a rallying point for U.S.-based Black activists who were part of the freedom movement of the 1950s–1970s. This project was supported by a Mellon Mid-career fellowship at Yale University in 2016-2017, a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society in 2018 and will be supported by an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science in 2020-2021. She has also begun research on “Left Traces: Patricia Robinson and the archive of Black women’s radicalism,”a biography of socialist feminist theorist Patricia Robinson.

Prof. Spencer’s writings have appeared in academic journals like the Journal of Women’s History and Souls, in essay collections about the 1960s and in The Washington Post, Vibe Magazine, Colorlines, Ms. Magazine and Truthout.