While doing some reading on the intersections between abolitionism and women’s suffrage recently, I came across some information about Black women activists in the 19th century who made important contributions to both movements, not in small part because of their strong Christian commitment.
In honor of Black History Month here in the U.S., I want to share some of what I’ve learned about five of these women. They are just a few in a long line of “doers of the Word”; African American women who led courageously from the margins despite socio-cultural restraints we cannot even imagine today.
Julia A. J. Foote 1823-1900
The daughter of former slaves, Foote fully embraced the Christian faith at age 15. As a young adult she began preaching, despite the misgivings of her parents, husband, and even her pastor. As biographer Tonya Bolden notes Foote “preached up a storm: early on in New York, New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and later, in Michigan, Ohio and Canada”. Speaking to crowds of both white and Black Americans, she frequently spoke out against racism and sexism. She was the first woman to be ordained a deacon (1894) and the second to be ordained an elder (1900) in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. When she met opposition, Foote simply argued that “her call came from God; therefore, what ‘man’ had to say was irrelevant, because she answered to a higher calling” (Williams, p. 169).
When Paul said, ‘Help those women who labor with me in the Gospel,’ he certainly meant that they did more than to pour out tea!”
Amanda Berry Smith 1837-1915
Born as a slave in Maryland and oldest of 13 children, Smith’s father purchased her family’s freedom before the Civil War by selling brooms made late at night after his other duties were completed. They moved to Pennsylvania where their home became a station on the Underground Railroad. Smith began preaching in NYC area during her early 30s and soon became a well-known speaker to both Black and white audiences, earning her the nicknames “The Singing Pilgrim” and “God’s Image Carved in Ebony”. She went on to spend 14 years on the mission field, evangelizing in England, India and Africa. For more on some of the miraculous circumstances and the impact of her ministry: check out this link.
The thought of ordination had never once entered my mind, for I had received my ordination from Him, who said, “ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you might go and bring forth fruit'”.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett 1862-1931
Born a slave in Mississippi, Wells’ family was freed the next year under the Emancipation Proclamation. When her parents and youngest sibling died of yellow fever, she went to work as a teacher so that the remaining siblings could stay together. She went on to become an investigative journalist and an influential anti-lynching crusader. “Petite in stature but a powerhouse of courage and determination, she lectured up and down the East Coast, establishing anti-lynching organizations and black women’s clubs” (source). While not a “preacher” like some on this list, her autobiography depicts a woman of faith who taught Sunday School and organized church-related community development efforts. In 1896, she founded the National Association of Colored Women and became increasingly devoted to the rights of women and children.
The appeal to the white man’s pocket has ever been more effectual than all the appeals ever made to his conscience.”
(I’ve been contemplating how we might apply this today to effect change…)
Anna Julia Cooper 1858-1964
Born into slavery in North Carolina, after emancipation Cooper went on to earn B.A. and M.A. degrees at Oberlin as well as a Ph.D. late in life at the Sorbonne in Paris. She had a long career as a teacher and principal, and was well-known for her speaking on both civil rights and the women’s movement. In her book A Voice from the South she argued that “the educational, moral, and spiritual progress of Black women would improve the general standing of the entire African-American community” (source) . Cooper may be best known for her address to the predominately white World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893, from which the quote below is taken.
The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won…”
Sojourner Truth c. 1797-1883
Sojourner was born a slave and had an exceptionally dismal life, being sold several times and badly mistreated. Later in life she managed to escape along with her youngest child and soon after became a devout Christian. In 1843 she began traveling and preaching; always advocating for abolition. Truth developed into a gifted speaker who proclaimed the gospel message boldly, and was also known for her outspokenness on women’s rights. Her extemporaneous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?“, was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, causing her to become one of the most celebrated and controversial itinerant preachers of her era.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
One thing I learned from this brief survey was just how little I know about 19th century women in general or about the complexities of the struggle for gender equality in the African American church. I’ve started a reading list and am hoping you have suggestions for what should be added.
In a recent study of Black women’s leadership Ngunjiri, Gramby-Sobukwe, and Williams-Gegner note that “early preaching Black women were radical in their commitment to consistent egalitarianism and social justice within the Black church and community as well as society at large” (p. 88) and refer to them as “tempered radicals”:
They were tempered in that they shared with their male counterparts a common commitment to Christianity, yet the women also represented, by their very presence as “preaching women,” a new interpretation of scripture, which threatened not only the power of men but the social priorities of the Black community.” (p. 88)
Like these “tempered radicals” who have gone before us, egalitarians share with all believers a common commitment to Christ and the authority of the scriptures, while at the same time advocating for the full inclusion of women in the pulpit and at all levels of church leadership.
May their examples of courage and persistence embolden us to continue pursuing issues of gender equality and justice in the church.
Your Turn: What would you add to a reading list about women’s roles in the African American church? The two below were recommended but I haven’t read them yet – if you’ve read them I’d love to hear what you thought.
Note to Readers: The words African American and black are used interchangeably in academia when referring to people of African descent in this time period, and I’ve chosen to keep the original wording in the quotes presented. I apologize if any of these terms are are offensive in your own context.
Ngunjiri, F.W., Gramby-Sobukwe, S., and K. Williams-Gegner. (2012), Tempered Radicals: Black Women’s Leadership in the Church and Community, The Journal of Pan African Studies V5 (2), April 2012: 84-109.
Schetcher, Patricia. (2000). Ida Wells-Barnett and American Reform 1880-1830. University of North Carolina Press.
Righteous Content: Black Women’s Perspectives of Church and Faith, Daphne Wiggins, 2005.
An End to This Strife: The Politics of Gender in African American Churches, Demetrius K. Williams, 2004.
*Photo Credit: http://www.gildedageincolor.com/?page_id=26 Thanks to Keith Stokes, Vice President of 1696 Heritage Group, for the information about the photo above. Mr. Stokes has been an Advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with serving on numerous regional and national historic preservation boards including Touro Synagogue Foundation, Preservation Society for Newport County, and Newport Historical Society. Newport, Rhode Island was the location of the first organized African American women’s organization. The Free African Women’s Benevolent Society was charted in 1808 by 10 free African women.