Black women tell their histories
Cambridge, Mass. — Sadie Alexander was one of the first three black women in the United States to earn a PhD degree and later was the first woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Mother Esther Mae Scott worked 34 years in domestic service and then began a musical career in her 70s. Rosa Parks helped trigger the civil-rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in racially segregated Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.
The Radcliffe College Black Women Oral History Project has recorded the accounts of these and 67 other women's lives in their own words in an effort to document their contribution to American life.
Under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, interviewers asked the 67 women, all over 60 years old, about their family backgrounds, childhood history, education and training, careers and volunteer activities, husbands and children, and perceptions of the effect of their race and sex on their lives.
Ruth Edmonds Hill, coordinator of the project at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, points out that women and blacks have not always "existed" in the history books. But the varied and deep contributions of these women show the impact such groups have had on American history.
"We have women with no education, and those with PhDs," says Mrs. Hill. "Some were domestic workers and there are a couple of doctors and a lawyer."
Some of the women interviewed for the collection are known nationally for their achievements. Alice Dunnigan, the first black woman journalist admitted to congressional press galleries, was a White House correspondent and chief of the Associated Negro Press Washington bureau.
Other women are well known in their own communities, such as Christia Adair of Houston, a community organizer, civic worker, and teacher, who was one of the first black precinct judges in Houston. the Christia V. Adair Park was dedicated in Houston in 1977.
"This project is absolutely seminal work for black history," says Louis M. Starr, director of the Oral History Office at Columbia University in New York. He says this addition to the history of black women is crucial "not just to contemporaries, but down the whole corridor of history."
Mrs. Hill hopes high school and college students, as well as researchers, will look at the histories.
"With the 1960s civil-rights movement, many young people feel no one else had done anything before," Mrs. Hill says. "That is obviously not true."
The library staff is compiling statistics on the women's backgrounds and on answers to some questions.
"IT seems to me that all the women who were married -- even those with careers -- thought their children and families were the most important contribution they had made," Mrs. Hill says.
"At a time when many women think it's either a career or a family, it's interesting to hear this. Some of these women went very, very far. They were not always highly educated. They had to struggle. But they think bringing up people who will make contributions is more important than any personal accomplishments."
The collection of histories will be put into hard-cover volumes and kept in 10 institutions, including the Schlesinger Library, The Rockefeller Foundation, Atlanta University, Columbia University, Fisk University, Howard University, Jackson State University, the New York Public Library, Tuskegee Institute, and the University of California at Berkeley.