How do you document the political activity of African-American Women?

This is the driving question behind the work of Phase II of March to the 19th. A state-wide task force comprised of subject and technical-matter experts is developing a methodology to answer this question and collect material across Tennessee:

  • Dr. Noelle Trent, National Civil Rights Museum – Chair
  • Andrea Blackman, Nashville Public Library
  • Genny Carter, Tennessee State Library & Archives
  • Dr. Earnestine Jenkins, University of Memphis
  • Renee Kesler, Beck Cultural Exchange Center
  • Dr. Susan Knowles, Middle Tennessee State University
  • Dr. Learotha Williams, Tennessee State University

Chick History President/CEO Rebecca Price and Task Force Member Dr. Earnestine Jenkins spoke with Jessica Bliss at the Tennessean about our work that will focus on these untold histories in our state, and you can read the full article here.

We are halfway through the Task Force work, and wanted to share just one of the conversations we are having.

Pictured below is a group of African-Americans at a Republican League political meeting in Memphis in 1917. Dr. Jenkins points out that at first glance it looks like a space of “male political activity.”

robert-r-church-republican-league-at-church-park-memphis-1917-2-copy
Credit: Church Family Papers, Special Collections, University of Memphis.

Upon closer examination, you begin to see that there are women present at this meeting. Memphis was one of the Southern cities with a large African-American population that was able to maintain some of its voters despite the racially-motivated voter suppression laws and tactics in place.

Robert Church Jr. formed the Republican League to educate and inform African-American men voters and he employed women teachers to teach and educate the men voters. This is an interesting story, of women informing and persuading black men in a particular way to vote. How do we capture these stories? What material culture is out there that can give us a broader and deeper understanding of this history and women’s experiences?

As Dr. Jenkins says, “Like in any culture that did community work, things have been forgotten…

…Black women have been politically active in many ways. To hear those stories, you have to go into the communities and then work within those communities to look for the material that documents that activity in churches and schools and hospitals and homes. That means looking, for example, for old newspapers or church programs with meeting notices for the local chapters of National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. It means getting people to look differently at everyday material long stashed away in an attic, and getting them to rethink the sense of their community history.”

As the Task Force continues it works (you can read the goals and timeline here) we will be finalizing not only the subject-matter scope but the collection methodology as well. A date range has not been finalized, but we are considering the time period between 1880-1930. We are asking the public for any comments, ideas, and leads that may help inform the work of the Task Force.

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