More Than Just a Paycheck: Black Women’s Stories of Work, Family, and Community Building During Desegregation, 1960s–2000s

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, LAWCHA, and WASM

Thursday, April 20, 2023, 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: African American; Women's History


As scholars scrutinize the past actions of prominent civil-rights-era and labor activists, policymakers, and business leaders to gain insight into resolving current crises affecting race, gender, and workforce equity, this panel of interdisciplinary scholars utilizes oral histories, archival and secondary source research, and ethnography to uncover the lesser-known historical efforts of working-class and professional African American women by critically analyzing the experiences of women in their own families. Encompassing a diversity of occupational fields, including education, nursing, and manufacturing, these presentations examine how these women from the Jim Crow North New England, the migration-bound Detroit, and rural South Carolina, the former birthplace of the Confederacy, desegregated previously all-white workspaces engaged in community building and maintained family responsibilities from the 1960s to the 2000s. By revealing how these women navigated through the minefields of being a ‘first,’ these presentations reflect the praxis of intersectionality, as these subjects' actions reflect the need to expand traditional perceptions of activists beyond representations of public protestors. As a beneficiary of two powerful social movements, their experiences as ‘firsts’ from the 1960s to the 2000s also call for extending civil rights historiographical chronological parameters to reflect what historian Jacquelyn Hall coined as “the long civil rights movement.” Deidre Butler’s presentation, “Womanist Genealogies: Three Generations of Black Women’s Educators’ Professional and Social Leadership,” looks at several generations of women educators in her family from the early twentieth century to the present including her great grandmother, segregation-era teacher Mattie Turner Norris (1874-1937), who participated in community service organizations including serving as president of the Georgia Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, Millicent Hill (1935 – 2010), who became the first Black woman to obtain tenure in the Simmons College's School of Social Work, and daughter, Hill Butler, who rose the ranks at Union College to obtain tenure as a first in her Sociology department, to examine the external and internal factors that enabled them to thrive as leaders within racially and gendered discriminatory work environments, serve as intergenerational role models, and community organization builders. Julia R. Moore discusses her mother, Annetta Marie Robinson’s, experiences as one of the first Black nurses at Sinai, Detroit’s first Jewish hospital during the 1960s in “Confronting Race and Place in Jewish Spaces: Black Women Medical Professionals in Detroit’s Sinai Hospital.” As Detroit became engulfed in the tumultuous era of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, Robinson traversed religious, racial, and gender boundaries to serve her patients and support her family. In “More Than Just a Paycheck: Black Women’s Stories of Work, Family, and Community Building During Desegregation, 1960s – 2000s,” Sonya Ramsey analyzes the experiences of Betty Jo Johnson, one of the first Black women to desegregate a golf ball factory in the Piedmont region of South Carolina in 1966. Working for over forty years, Johnson’s tumultuous work account illuminates the experiences of other southern Black women workers who waged individual battles against racism, sexism, automation, and globalization without union protection.

Papers Presented

“I Was in the Top Thirty-Five!” Betty Jo Johnson and African American Women Non-Unionized Factory Workers in the Carolinas, 1960s-2000s”

Drawn from oral histories, archival data, and secondary sources, this presentation describes the experiences of twenty-one-year-old Betty Jo Johnson, only the third Black woman hired to make golf balls in 1966 at the Dunlop Tire and Rubber Factory Ltd, in Westminster, SC, a small town in the Upper Piedmont region of the state. Due to civil rights legislation, African American activism, and growing economic expansion, factories started hiring Black employees in the mid-1960s. As the collective presence of civil rights protests faded and the growing influence of corporate takeovers and globalization transformed the US manufacturing sector, this project's local focus provides a concentrated framework for understanding the common issues related to workplace equity, work-life balance, and technological changes facing women factory workers from the 1960s to the 2000s. During the forty years that Johnson worked at the British-owned Dunlop, she became an outspoken self-advocate when responding to multi-layered acts of racism and sexism from white women co-workers and male managers, and resentment from envious Black co-workers. As she shared, “I would never quit. This job pays good money, and I won’t go back to being a maid!” Despite becoming one of the company's top thirty-five percent of earners by consistently making her 1000-balls-per-day quota, Johnson lost her job as the British company's sales declined due to ill-advised management, which resulted in problematic ownership and production changes. On November 1, 2005, Johnson reported to work only to learn that Dunlop, the factory where she worked most of her life, had closed.

Presented By
Sonya Y. Ramsey, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Womanist Genealogies: Three Generations of Black Women’s Educators’ Professional and Social Leadership.

This presentation provides a historically grounded conception of womanism praxis by focusing on the professional, civic, cultural experiences of three generations of African American women educators from the turn of the century to the post-civil rights era of the 1970s to the present. Mattie Turner Norris (1874-1937), a prominent educator in Atlanta and Marietta segregated schools for thirty-five years, established a family tradition of civic and charitable service and leadership as one of the Charter Members and subsequent President of the Georgia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, a branch of the National Association of Colored Women Clubs. She also served as the President of the Missionary Society of the First Congregational Church in Atlanta. Her granddaughter, Millicent Hill (1935 – 2010), drew from her family’s legacy of education to encounter intersectional attacks of racism and sexism in the Jim Crow North, to become the first Black woman tenured professor in Social Work at Simmons College during the 1970s. Her daughter, Sociologist Deidre Hill Butler, continued upon her mother’s path as the first African American woman tenured Sociology professor and present-day Chief Academic Diversity Officer at Union College in Schenectady, NY, in the 2000s. As scholars examine the history of the African American family as it encountered the destructive forces of systemic racism, patriarchal sexism, and political and cultural external conflicts, the presentation analyzes the ‘lived genealogies’ of these three educational leaders as they relied on the sustaining forces of faith and family support to construct lasting faith-based and public service organizations.

Presented By
Deidre Hill Butler, Union College

Confronting Race and Place in Jewish Spaces: Black Women Medical Professionals in Detroit’s Sinai Hospital

he stories and experiences of Black female administrators, nurses, and doctors at Detroit’s first Jewish Hospital—Sinai Hospital—offer a fascinating window of insight into how black women chose to confront, mitigate, and navigate the challenges of race, place, and religion. Set against the backdrop of the Modern Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, Black women in various aspects of the medical field at Sinai not only had to learn Jewish culture and history in a period of racial and political unrest, but they also had to acquaint themselves with the rituals of Jewish traditions. This paper explores how black women medical specialists had multiple roles to navigate as mothers, wives, and medical professionals in predominantly Jewish spaces and it reveals the strategies of agency, resiliency, and ingenuity that black women created in order to sustain their careers and families.

Presented By
Julia Robinson Moore, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Session Participants

Chair: Janaka Bowman Lewis, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Janaka Bowman Lewis, Ph.D is an associate professor of English, director of the Center for the Study of the New South, and faculty affiliate in the Department of Africana Studies and the Women's and Gender Studies Program 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.

Commentator: Prudence D. Cumberbatch, Brooklyn College
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.

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 history of 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 the 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, the National Council for Black Studies, and the New York African Studies Association.

Presenter: Julia Robinson Moore, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Trained as a historian, Religious Studies Associate Professor, Julia Robinson Moore’s (Ph.D. Michigan State University), work focuses on the intersections of racism, religion, and racial violence within American Protestantism and the African Diaspora. She teaches courses in African American religion, religions of the African Diaspora, and racial violence in America. Her first book, Race, Religion, and the Pulpit: Reverend Robert L. Bradby and the Making of Urban Detroit (2015), explores how Second Baptist Church of Detroit’s nineteenth minister became the catalyst for economic empowerment, community-building, and the formation of an urban African American working class in Detroit. Her current research project, “Ties that Bind”: African American Presbyterians in the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the New South, speaks to the historical complexities of black and white race relations in the cities of Charleston and Charlotte through the lens of American Presbyterianism. She has a third research project titled Modern Lynchings: Mimetic Theory, Christianity, and Racial Violence in the New South, which seeks to situate race as a category of analysis within mimetic theory through the study of anti-black violence and terrorism in the New South.

Presenter: Sonya Y. Ramsey, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Sonya Ramsey is an Associate Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She received a master’s and a Ph.D. in United States History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Ramsey specializes in African American Gender History, the History of Education, and Southern History. An experienced oral historian, in 1993, she became one of the original interviewers in the Behind the Veil Project: Documenting the Jim Crow South oral history project sponsored by Duke University and the Ford Foundation.

Dr. Ramsey 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. Her forthcoming book, Bertha Maxwell-Roddey, a Modern-Day Race Woman and the Power of Black Leadership, published by the University Press of Florida will be released in June 2022.