Found  /  Q&A

‘Moving Unapologetically to the Forefront’: How an Archive Is Preserving the Black Feminist Movement

The Black Woman’s Organizing Archive highlights work in the 19th and 20th centuries that benefitted Black women and American society as a whole.

Daja E. Henry: This work focuses on the women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s set the stage: What were they writing about and what were they up against?

Sabrina Evans: Particularly coming up into the late 19th century, we see Black women seeing the necessity of coming together themselves. And so in this period, we have the early women’s rights movement and Black women finding issue with not having both race and gender addressed in that space, and in a lot of ways feeling like it was pretty much like a White women’s movement. They weren’t represented, they weren’t able to be in positions of leadership or even to speak before a lot of the meetings and conventions that the women’s rights movement was creating. 

And then on the other side of things we have Black organizations, predominantly male leadership with the same issue of not having their perspectives viewed. And so they felt the need to kind of come together collectively. 

Then comes Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s call in 1894 for women to confer and to really speak towards the way that they’re being disrespected in the White mainstream press, but also in these spaces, and saying that we need to have a space to prioritize the things that we want to prioritize, and to really bring Black women’s perspectives to the forefront of organizing, particularly when we think about issues such as lynching becoming more predominant that were a lot of times very Black male focused. This is also a period where Jim Crow segregation is becoming increasingly concretized. 

Shirley Moody-Turner: It’s a really critical moment. The late 19th century sees the pullback from Reconstruction. So this is the moment where you really have these rollbacks of Black political rights. And so it creates a space for Black women to step into the forefront because they didn’t have the same access to political rights as Black men did through Reconstruction. 

You see them moving unapologetically to the forefront through what I see as a three-prong approach of addressing public opinion. They knew they had to shift public opinion in the way people were thinking about Black women, through local grassroots efforts by attending to the needs of their communities that weren’t going to be addressed in other institutional spaces and organizing a national voice.