Activism in the Aftermath, Rebuilding and Reforming, Participatory Democracy in Action: Southern Black Women Educational Activists and Community Institution Builders in the Urban South, 1890s to 2010s
Endorsed by Women and Social Movements in the United States,1600–2000
Sunday, April 18, 2021, 5:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Type: Paper Session
Tags: African American; Education; Environment
Comprised of interdisciplinary scholars from History, English, and Sociology, this historical presentation explores the writings and actions of four black women educational activists and community organizers from the 1890s to the 2010s. Expanding upon Civil Rights Leader Ella Baker’s concept of participatory democracy, “In the Aftermath,” examines the leadership styles, writings, and strategies of educators Anna Julia Cooper, Lucy Craft Laney, and Bertha Maxwell-Roddey, and community organizer Ruby Baker. They established or led institutions and organizations to remedy or to rebuild in the aftermath of major societal and environmental events affecting blacks, such as the entrenchment of Jim Crow after Reconstruction, racial desegregation since the late 1960s, and the destruction of the 2010 Nashville flood on a black neighborhood. This presentation also calls for an expansion of the image of the angry activist to reconsider the endeavors of women who relied on their experiences and skills from the dissemination of their writings to non-violent protest, to astute negotiating to enact social change. English professor Janaka Lewis’s presentation, “Lessons of Freedom,” relies on Cooper’s and Laney’s writings to examine how they conveyed mentored racial uplift and argued for educational opportunities as a way to achieve social progress. By establishing a kindergarten, high school, and nursing school, Laney also helped African American children and women become beneficiaries of democracy’s promise from the 1880s to the 1930s. Drawn from oral histories, and primary and secondary sources, historian Sonya Ramsey’s presentation, “I Am Because We Are,” explores the efforts of Bertha Maxwell-Roddey and other black women educators to demand equity in the public schools, higher education, and in their communities from the late 1960s to the 1990s. Born in 1930, Maxwell-Roddey rose from childhood poverty in Seneca, South Carolina, to become one of the first black women principals of a white elementary school in Charlotte, founding director of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Africana Studies Department (1971), and founder of the National Council for Black Studies, (1975). This presentation also discusses Maxwell-Roddey’s impact as a cultural institution builder as the co-founder of Charlotte’s African American Cultural and Service Center, now the Harvey Gantt Center, an $18 million arts facility. Sociologist Deidre Hill Butler’s presentation, “Revitalized Community,” is based on her 2016 public sociology exhibit at the Nashville Public Library that featured historical and current images, surveys, and interviews. A non-traditional sociological study it also analyzes Bordeaux’s origin as an African American segregated neighborhood since the late 1950s. Hill Butler also reveals the lesser-discussed efforts of black women community and environmental activists, such as Ruby Baker, a home-owner since the 1990s, who first formed a neighborhood watch in response to growing crime. In the aftermath of the flood, she organized the Bordeaux Community Residential Association to support residents and to demand an adequate response from governmental agencies, amid the out-migration of its black residents, and gentrification’s impending threat of cultural erasure. Analyzing Ruby Baker’s grassroots efforts contributes to a broader discussion of African American communities’ responses to environmental disasters in the South.
“I am because we are”: Bertha Maxwell-Roddey, Charismatic Advocacy, Educational Activism, and Community Building in Desegregated Era Charlotte, 1969
Bertha Maxwell-Roddey (b. 1930), one of the first black women principals of a white elementary school in Charlotte, founding director of UNC Charlotte’s Africana Studies Department (1971), and founder of the National Council for Black Studies (1975) tried to fulfill the promise of desegregation during tumultuous change from the late 1960s to the 1990s. This presentation also explores Maxwell-Roddey’s impact as a cultural institution builder as the co-founder of Charlotte’s African American Cultural and Service Center (1974) now the Harvey Gantt Center, an $18 million arts facility. This presentation expands current historiography on the impact of community-centered educational activists in the post-Civil Rights era by drawing upon oral histories, archival data, and secondary sources. “I am because we are,” reveals how Maxwell-Roddey and other black women activists celebrated civil rights gains while also mitigating losses of community and identity resulting from school desegregation’s forced black school closings and urban renewal. As the ‘first black’ or first woman,’ or ‘first black woman’ in her professional and public life, Maxwell-Roddey’s experiences illuminate individual black women leaders’ activism after the mass marches dissipated, from encouraging student protests to recruiting unlikely allies as a form of charismatic advocacy. As the 20th President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (1992-1996), Maxwell-Roddey also gained national prominence as the leader of one of the most influential black women’s organizations in the US. During her Presidency, Delta Sigma Theta became the first national black organization to partner with Habitat for Humanity to construct over 500 homes nationally and internationally.
Sonya Y. Ramsey, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Lessons in Freedom: Women’s Mentoring and Racial Uplift in the Lived Experiences and Writings of Anna Julia Cooper and Lucy Craft Laney, 1860s
By analyzing their personal narratives and professional writings, this presentation discusses how the formal and informal educational experiences of Anna Julia Cooper and Lucy Craft Laney led to their success as prominent educators. In reviewing their writings, I will also examine how their work conveyed lessons about what freedom should look like in lifelong practice. Arguing that “We can give ourselves,” in A Voice from the South, Cooper includes black women into conversations of racial “uplift," but she is just as concerned with past efforts of racial progress as with future opportunities for black men and black women. Laney established Haines Industrial and Normal Institute in 1886 in Augusta that was recognized by W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, as well as the first black kindergarten and nursing school in the city. Through speeches and essays, Laney also reflected on the distance that blacks had come in just a short period of freedom and instructed mothers on how to build their children up at home to be successful and productive as the first generation of free adults. By setting up both personal narratives and ideals of social progress as curricula for life, Cooper and Laney mentor racial uplift, arguing for educational opportunities as means for women (and in effect, men as well) to achieve real social progress. I also compare their examples within the larger context of Black women's training and mentorship by discussing Laney’s connections with Mary McLeod Bethune and the legacy continued by Charlotte Hawkins Brown.
Janaka Bowman Lewis, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Revitalized Community: Ruby Baker and the Bordeaux Community Residential Association, African American Women’s Grassroots Community and Environmental Activism, before and after the 2010 Flood, 1950s to 2010s
“Revitalized Community” describes how Ruby Baker organized her Bordeaux neighborhood after Nashville’s devastating 2010 flood to respond to a lack of attention from local, state, and national officials. Bordeaux, a predominately black working-class community in Nashville, Tennessee, was especially hard-hit, due to its proximity to the Cumberland River. Based on historical sources and sociological data, I also discuss Bordeaux’s history from its establishment as a middle-class black suburb by Reverend William Haynes in the 1950s to its confrontations with urban crime and environmental racism as the designated location for the city’s landfill by the 1980s. Analyzing Ruby Baker’s courageous efforts to save her neighborhood contributes to a broader historical discussion of how African American communities have responded to environmental disasters in the South. Ruby D. Baker, a Certified Administrative Professional, bought her house in the Bordeaux Hills neighborhood in the early 1990s. After organizing a neighborhood watch, she faced an unexpected threat when the flood destroyed 200 homes in her neighborhood. Baker, as head of the Bordeaux Community Residential Association (BCRA), worked with churches and organizations to disseminate information and successfully fought against City plans to demolish unfit homes without cleaning up the debris. Baker’s BCRA also contended with residential out-migration and gentrification. Through Baker’s leadership of the BCRA, elected officials and community members began a dialogue that resulted in the formation of a neighborhood advisory committee to the Mayor. Baker’s experiences also shed light on the often overlooked efforts of black women community environmental activists.
Deidre Hill Butler, Union College
Chair and Commentator: Prudence D. Cumberbatch, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Prudence Cumberbatch is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Africana Studies Department at Brooklyn College (CUNY). She received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. She co-edited (with Dayo Gore and Sarah Haley) Black Women’s Labor: Economics, Culture and Politics Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society (2016). She is the author of “Baltimore: From Frederick Douglass to The Wire,” which appeared in the online resource, the Oxford African American Studies Center, for which she also served as the Baltimore subject editor. Her publications include: Hashtag Activism and Why #BlackLivesMatter In (and To) the Classroom" (co-authored with Nicole Trujillo-Pagan) Radical Teacher Vol. 106; “Baltimore: From Frederick Douglass to The Wire,” which appeared in the online resource, the Oxford African American Studies Center, for which she also served as the Baltimore subject editor. She is also the author of What “the Cause” Needs Is A “Brainy and Energetic Woman:” A Study of Female Charismatic Leadership in Baltimore in Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard and Dayo Gore eds. Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (NYU Press) and “Transnationalism and the Construction of Black Political Identities,” Radical History Review, 103. Her primary areas of interest include African American, social, labor, and women's history. She has received a grant from the Research Foundation of the City University of New York and a fellowship from the Whiting Foundation. During the 2004-2005 academic year, she was a residential fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and was a recipient of a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. Professor Cumberbatch has presented papers at the annual conventions of the Organization of American Historians, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Southern Association for Women Historians, and the American Historical Association.
Presenter: Deidre Hill Butler, Union College
Deidre Hill Butler, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Professor Hill Butler’s academic research focuses on the ways social justice in Black communities; the Black Baptist Church in New England, blended families, and community revitalization efforts after natural disasters. She has published articles in Afro-Americans in New York Life and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, numerous publications with Demeter Press and she has also guest-edited special editions of the Africology: Journal of Pan African Studies. She recently curated a community engaged photo exhibit “Revitalized Community: Bordeaux Since the 2010 flood” at the newly renovated Bordeaux Branch of the Nashville, Tennessee public library and a similar exhibit at the Schaffer Library at Union College, Schenectady, New York. Her forthcoming book, Beyond Mammies and Matriarchs: Visibility of Black Stepmothers positions Black stepmothers in their rightful place as part of Black motherhood discourses. She is a lifetime member of the Association of Black Women Historians. Active in community organizations inside and outside of the academy, Dr. Hill Butler is an active member of Capital Region Consortium for ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) Faculty group and she is a lifetime member of the Association of Black Women Historians. Dr. Hill Butler is also a member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, National Council for Black Studies and the New York African Studies Association.
Presenter: Janaka Bowman Lewis, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Janaka Bowman Lewis, Ph.D is an associate professor of English, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program, and faculty affiliate in the Department of Africana Studies at UNC Charlotte. She teaches courses on 19th and 20th century African American women’s literature and African American archival and material culture. She is the author of Freedom Narratives of African American Women (McFarland 2017), two children's books, and is currently at work on a monograph, "Freedom to Play: Black Girlhood and Narratives of Liberation," that focuses on the significance of representations of African American girls and social engagement in literature from Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel The Hate U Give.
Presenter: Sonya Y. Ramsey, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Sonya Ramsey grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and attended Howard University where she received a B.A. in Journalism and received her Master’s and Ph.D. in United States History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an Associate Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Graduate Director of UNC Charlotte’s WGST Graduate Certificate Program in Women’s Studies, Gender, and Sexuality. She specializes in African American Gender History, the History of Education, and Southern History. An experienced oral historian, Dr. Ramsey was one of the original interviewers in the Behind the Veil Project: Documenting the Jim Crow South sponsored by Duke University and the Ford Foundation.
She is the author of several historical works including, Reading, Writing, and Segregation: a Century of Black Women Teachers in Nashville, published by the University of Illinois Press; A book chapter entitled, “The Destiny of Our Race Lies Largely in Their Hands:’ African American Women Teachers’ Efforts during the Progressive Era in Memphis and Nashville,” in the edited volume, Their Work in the Public Sphere: Tennessee’s New Women in the New South During the Progressive Era, Mary Evins, editor, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press); and “Caring is Activism: Black Southern Womanist Teachers Theorizing and the Careers of Kathleen Crosby and Bertha Maxwell-Roddey, 1946–1986,” in Educational Studies: A Journal of the American Educational Studies Association, 48, (no. 3), 244-265. Currently she is revising her manuscript, After the Marches: Bertha Maxwell-Roddey's Educational Activism, Reconfiguring Civil Rights in the Desegregated South, which is under advanced contract with the University Press of Florida.