Dr. Dorothy Height’s longevity and 40-year tenure as head of the National Council of Negro Women made her perhaps the best-known Black female activist in America, respected by Whites and revered by Blacks. When she died in April at age 98, The Washington Post referred to her as “a founding matriarch of the American civil rights movement whose crusade for racial justice and gender equality spanned more than six decades.”
In a sense, however, she was just the latest in a long line of Black church ladies who turned their zeal for God into the justification and engine for the campaigns against racial and gender injustice, as well as for social progress for African-Americans.
Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, a professor of history at Temple University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has labored in this voluminous work to write such women into history where they belong. The book’s title comes from a 1958 speech by Nannie Helen Burroughs, whose accomplishments included founding a training school for young Black women in Washington, D.C., in 1908 and leading the National Baptist Convention’s women’s auxiliary for many years.
“The Negro must have Jesus, Jobs and Justice,” she declared, proclaiming an agenda for Black Americans once segregation ended.
The author discusses the centrality of religion to the Black experience in this country and the role of spirituality as the catalyst for social action in the pursuit for racial justice. While Black churches served as the organizing force and often the meeting place for many activists, women, as the backbone of the church (constituting at least two-thirds of membership), became the foot soldiers of the struggle.
More importantly, Collier-Thomas documents how African-American women, Protestant and Catholic, established their own strongholds inside and outside the church to address the social and corporal needs of Blacks at home and abroad as they pressed for justice for their race and sex. The professor traces the rise of such groups as the African-American Female Intelligence Society, the Colored Ladies Freedmen’s Aid Society, the National Association of Colored Women, the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, Alabama, various missionary societies, and the women’s auxiliaries of various large denominations.
The National Association of Colored Women, for instance, grew out of a movement that sprang up “in defense of Black womanhood” in response to a White editor’s insult in 1895.
“The Negroes in this country are wholly devoid of morality, the women are prostitutes, and all Negroes are thieves and liars,” said John W. Jacks, who was president of the Missouri Press Association.
His remarks in turn were in answer to Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s assertion that most lynching victims were not guilty of rapes as often alleged to justify horrendous crimes against Blacks. Clearly, Black women’s organizations had their work cut out for them.
As Collier-Thomas notes, African-American women’s groups often leveraged their power by joining and forming coalitions with groups representing White women and other Christians, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Church Women United, and the Young Women’s Christian Association, where Height did some of her early work on race relations.
The author also chronicles the battles waged by women of the church to be heard within its walls when most denominations forbade women to take leadership within the congregations and certainly to preach to and lead their brethren. Many Black women were hardly silent in the face of such views and often found ways around it. Among those who would not be silenced was the Rev. Ida B. Robinson of Philadelphia, who withdrew from her denomination, started her own church in 1924, and became its bishop, according to Collier-Thomas.
Through the professor’s work and the many photographs that enrich the text, we see that this kind of determination to serve God and humanity on one’s own terms kept African-American women in the forefront of the movements for freedom and equality in this country and is alive and well today.
Collier-Thomas, who previously wrote Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons and edited Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights–Black Power Movement with co-editor V. P. Franklin, expects that Black women will remain on the frontlines.
“As long as White America continues to ignore the economic and political concerns of Black Americans, Black women will of necessity maintain their commitment to race organizations and institutions such as the church,” Collier-Thomas writes.
Angela P. Dodson is a frequent contributor to Diverse: Issues In Higher Education and DiverseEducation.com.