Forced to leave paradise in the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve received the option of free will. Free will means the right to choose to do good or to do bad. History has recorded many women who used that right of free will to work for good causes – even in societies where they faced seemingly overwhelming gender or racial bias.
This topic came from a reader. She asked about African-American women who were involved in early civil rights in American history. This discussion includes black American women who were guided by their faith to work for racial justice, equality and people with needs. Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and humanitarian, wrote, “Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.” In a later column, I hope to discuss present-day Black women who are standing up for justice and equality.
It was difficult to select a few women because many have been involved in seeking human and social rights for all people. Sources for information about these women can be found on many websites: National Women’s History Museum, Biography, National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Isabella Baumfree had a difficult life, but she found ways to help herself and others. Her story starts around 1797 in New York. Her life, as a slave with different owners, consisted of hard work and beatings. Eventually she escaped from slavery. The year 1843 was life-changing for her. Not only did she become a Christian, but she also changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She said that God called her to preach the truth. As a member of Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Florence, Mass., she fought for women’s rights, religious freedom, and nonviolence. She is known for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” delivered in 1851 in which she demanded equal rights for women and all Black people. She continued to speak for equality and advocate for land grants for former slaves. She died in 1883 as a faithful servant of God.
Violet Johnson was a resourceful, active woman who brought change to her community in the service of her faith. She was born in Wilmington in 1870. Later, she worked for a white family in Summit, N.J. While living in this predominately white community, she started a group to study the Bible. This group grew into Fountain Baptist Church, Summit’s first African-American church. Johnson was active in all areas of the church. Later she was a member of the white New Jersey Women’s Suffrage Association.
Her involvement moved the group to become multi-racial. She worked on important areas such as voter registration and anti-lynching. She founded the Girls Industrial Home where young girls were taught survival skills. She was a founder and officer of the Summit chapter of the NAACP. Her busy life and accomplishments revealed that she was a dedicated Christian woman whose faith led her to work for good causes.
Dorothy Height was born in 1912 in Richmond, Va. After college, she worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association in Harlem. She had been inspired by Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women. She tried to integrate YWCA facilities nationwide. Through the NCNW, Height focused on ending the lynching of African Americans and changing the criminal justice system. She was present on the speaker stage at the 1963 March on Washington. She was surrounded by many of the civil rights activists.
In 1994, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton. Height wrote, “I have been in the proximity of, and threatened by, the Klan; I have been called everything people of color are called; I have been denied admission because of a quota. I’ve had all of that, but I’ve also learned that getting bitter is not the way.”
There are many more black women who were the strength and substance of social changes. Interested readers can find information online about women of action: Ella Baker, Shirley Chisholm, Daisy Bates, Septima Clark, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Ida Tarbell Wells-Barnett, Rosa Parks and Juanita Abernathy to name a few.
My final point for this week is to encourage readers to take John Lewis’ words seriously. “In the final analysis, we all must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. We all live in the same house. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re all black or white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American. It doesn’t matter whether you’re straight or gay. We are one people. We are one family. Be bold. Be courageous, stand up. Speak out and find a way to create the beloved community, the beloved world, a world of peace, a world that will recognize the dignity of all human kind. Never become bitter. Never become hostile. Never hate. Live in peace. We’re one, one people and one love.”