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

Endorsed by SHGAPE

Thursday, May 4, 2023, 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: African American; Gender and Sexuality; 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 narratives shape survival and resistance? How have the institutional imperatives of assembling archival collections 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 antebellum 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 whose life was publicly chronicled by the press during a 1904 interracial sex scandal. While her attempt to defend herself in court illuminates significant revelations during the Progressive Era, her family genealogy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is equally informative and fascinating. Indeed, her family history offers a telling perspective on the myriad challenges to Black freedom in Pennsylvania. Although born in 1865 Philadelphia, Elias’s 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 the 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 – 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, home making traditions, the items she collected during her lifetime 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 around 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, CUNY

Session Participants

Chair: Nicole Myers Turner, Princeton University
Dr. Nicole Myers Turner is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. Her book, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Post-Emancipation Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), which narrates the transformation in black religious political strategies that occurred from 1865 to 1890. In addition to being published as a paperback, the book also appears as an open-access, enhanced e-book by Fulcrum Press and features interactive images and maps. Soul Liberty has been widely reviewed and has the distinction of a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and nomination as a finalist for the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Nonfiction Award.

Turner has held a postdoctoral fellowship with the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University and has received research fellowships from several institutions including, the Virginia Historical Society, Rubinstein Rare Book and Special Collections Library at Duke University, and the Humanities Research Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she taught before joining the faculty at Yale.

In addition to researching the history of Black Protestants and politics after emancipation, Turner has also studied black churches and activism during the civil rights and contemporary periods, the memory of slavery in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and in the Works Progress Administration of the 1920s. She has recently written essays on Black Christianity after Emancipation, African American Religion and Politics, and has an essay forthcoming in the edited volume, The Civil War Era and the Summer 2020, titled “Fighting for Black Humanity: Political Action of Post-Emancipation Black Christians.” Her next book project explores early African American religious history and themes of physical, social and affective movement.

Turner earned her PhD and MA degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, her MDiv from Union Theological Seminary (New York), and her BA from Haverford College.

Commentator: Mia E. Bay, University of Pennsylvania
Mia Bay is the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History at University of Pennsylvania. Bay is a scholar of American and African American intellectual, cultural and social history, whose recent interests include black women’s thought, African American approaches to citizenship, and the history of race and transportation. Her publications include Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance (Harvard University Press, 2021); The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830-1925 (Oxford University Press, 2000); To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) and the edited work Ida B Wells, The Light of Truth: The Writings of An Anti-Lynching Crusader (Penguin Books, 2014); as well as a number of articles and book chapters.

She is also the co-author, with Waldo Martin and Deborah Gray White, of the textbook Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents (Bedford/St. Martins 2012, 1st Edition, 2016, 2nd Edition, 2020, 3rd Edition), and the editor of two collections of essays: Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), which she co-edited with Farah Jasmin Griffin, Martha S. Jones and Barbara Savage, and Race and Retail: Consumption Across the Color Line (Rutgers University Press, 2015), which she co-edited with Ann Fabian.

Bay’s current projects include additional works on race space and transportation and a book on the history of African American ideas about Thomas Jefferson.

Presenter: K.T. Ewing, Tennessee State University
K. T. Ewing is an Associate 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.

Commentator: Tiyi Morris, Ohio State University
Tiyi M. Morris is Associate Professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University at Newark and a co-founder/co-director of the Ohio Prison Education Exchange Project (OPEEP). She is a civil rights historian who studies Black women’s social and political activism. Teaching in African American and African Studies, a discipline that emerged from social justice movements, Dr. Morris’ curricula underscore the need to create a more just and equitable society. She believes her role as an educator is to help dismantle systems of oppression by liberating the minds of students and empowering them to challenge the oppressions they face and/or perpetuate. In 2019, she began teaching in correctional institutions to support the discipline’s mission to connect the community to the campus and to actualize a philosophy of education as the practice of freedom. Dr. Morris is the author of Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (UGA Press, 2015). She has published in the Journal of African American Studies and Teaching History: A Journal of Methods as well as in edited collections about the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Her current research examines women’s racial identities and relationality in carceral institutions in Ohio. Dr. Morris previously served on the Board of Women Have Options, Ohio’s statewide abortion fund, and is currently President of WeRISE, a racial justice organization in Westerville, Ohio.

Presenter: Robyn C. Spencer, Lehman College, CUNY
Robyn C. Spencer is an Associate Professor of History at Lehman College. Her research focuses on Black social protest after World War II, radicalism, and gender.

Her first book The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, on gender and the organizational evolution of the Black Panther Party in Oakland 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.

In 2016 she received a Mellon fellowship at Yale University to work on her second book project: To Build the World Anew: Black Liberation Politics and the Movement Against the Vietnam War. This project 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. In many ways, it continues her emphasis on exploring overlapping and intersecting boundaries between social protest movements. In 2018 she was awarded a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society to support work on this project. In 2020-2021 work on this project was supported by an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science.