What in contemporary parlance we would call African American feminisms has been a politics and activism communal in its orientation, addressing the rights and material conditions of women, men, and children since the first Dutch slaver brought captive Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Although Black women would not have used the terms “feminist” or “feminism,” which did not enter into use until what is recognized now as the first wave of feminism, scholars have been using those terms for the past two decades to refer to Black women’s activism in the United States stretching at least as far back as the 1830s with the oratory and publications of Maria Stewart and the work of African American women in abolition and church reform. Alongside and in many ways enabled by crucial forms of resistance to slavery, Black women developed forms of feminist activism and a political culture that advanced claims for freedom and rights in a number of arenas. Yet our historical knowledge of 19th-century Black feminist activism has been limited by historiographical tendencies. Histories of American feminism have tended to marginalize Black feminisms by positioning these activists as contributing to a white-dominant narrative, focused on woman’s rights and suffrage. The literature on African American feminism has tended to hail the Black women’s club movement of the late 19th century as the emergence of that politics. Though many people may recognize only a handful of 19th-century African American feminists by name and reputation, early Black feminism was multiply located and extensive in its work. African American women continued the voluntary work that benevolent and mutual aid societies had begun in the late 18th century and established literary societies during the early 19th century; they entered Black nationalist debates over emigration and advocated for the self-sufficiency and education of their communities, including women; and they fought to end slavery and the repressive racialized violence that accompanied it in free states and continued through the nadir. Throughout the century, African American feminists negotiated competing and often conflicting demands within interracial reform movements like abolition, woman’s rights, and temperance, and worked to open the pulpit, platform, press, and politics to Black women’s voices.
Black internationalism describes the political culture and intellectual practice forged in response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism. It is a historical and ongoing collective struggle against racial oppression rooted in global consciousness. While the expression of black internationalism has certainly changed across time and place, black liberation through collaboration has been and remains its ultimate goal. Since the emergence of black internationalism as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and during the Age of Revolutions, black women such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and evangelist Rebecca Protten have been at its forefront. Their writings and activism espoused an Afro-diasporic, global consciousness and promoted the cause of universal emancipation. During the 19th century, black women internationalists included abolitionists, missionaries, and clubwomen. They built on the work of their predecessors while laying the foundations for succeeding black women internationalists in the early 20th century. By World War I, a new generation of black women activists and intellectuals remained crucial parts of the International Council of Women, an organization founded by white suffragists from the United States, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a global organization formally led by Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. But they also formed an independent organization, the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICWDR). Within and outside of the ICWDR, black women from Africa and the African Diaspora faced and challenged discrimination on the basis of their sex and race. Their activism and intellectual work set a powerful precedent for a subsequent wave of black internationalism shaped by self-avowed black feminists.
Emancipation celebrations in the United States have been important and complicated moments of celebration and commemoration. Since the end of the slave trade in 1808 and the enactment of the British Emancipation Act in 1834 people of African descent throughout the Atlantic world have gathered, often in festival form, to remember and use that memory for more promising futures. In the United States, emancipation celebrations exploded after the Civil War, when each local community celebrated their own experience of emancipation. For many, the commemoration took the form of a somber church service, Watch Night, which recognized the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Juneteenth, which recognized the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, became one of the most vibrant and longstanding celebrations. Although many emancipation celebrations disappeared after World War I, Juneteenth remained a celebration in most of Texas through the late 1960s when it disappeared from all cities in the state. However, because of the Second Great Migration, Texans transplanted in Western cities continued the celebration in their new communities far from Texas. In Texas, Juneteenth was resurrected in 1979 when state representative, later Congressman, Al Edwards successfully sponsored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday and campaigned to spread Juneteenth throughout the country. This grassroots movement brought Juneteenth resolutions to forty-six states and street festivals in hundreds of neighborhoods. Juneteenth’s remarkable post-1980 spread has given it great resonance in popular culture as well, even becoming a focus of two major television episodes in 2016 and 2017.
Paul Michel Taillon
Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.
Ann V. Collins
Between the turbulent months of April and October 1919, racial violence reached a peak in the United States. Some twenty-six white-on-black massacres took place across the country. Author and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson dubbed this terrible period the Red Summer as a way to characterize pervasive racial hostility and for the blood spilled in its wake. Yet, racial violence has had a long and painful history in the United States. From the moment enslaved Africans arrived in the New World, whites strove cruelly and systematically to maintain power and control over their bodies and labor. Indeed, many interactions between ostensible racial groups have centered on white hostility. A type of brutality that proved especially vicious took the shape of white-on-black race massacres. First appearing in the early 19th century and fading by the end of World War II, whites used these types of disturbances to deny African Americans progress and freedom. Destruction of black communities, massive bloodshed, and lynchings characterized these occurrences. The early 20th century, and particularly the Red Summer, marked a critical moment in the history of race relations of the United States—one that proved deadly to African Americans.
The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were a collection of racially segregated, as mandated by the US War Department, Black US Army military units that served during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Their collective military service is widely known for playing critical roles in ending slavery, protecting freedpeople, defeating the Confederate military, enforcing multiple US government policies, and reframing gender ideology while making explicit demands for more racially inclusive conceptions of citizenship. Black men, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, comprised the 179,000 individuals that served in a USCT regiment. For instance, some soldiers were formerly bondsmen from Confederate states, while others (who were freeborn) came from free states and even internationally (including Canada). USCT regiments were never solely male-exclusive domains. Numerous Black women supported the US war effort, in and outside of the military spaces, in many ways. For example, Susie King Taylor served as a laundress and nurse in the Thirty-Third United States Colored Infantry. Thus, Black women are important figures in understanding Black Civil War–era military service. Ultimately, USCT regiments, and their supporters, fought for racial and social justice (during and long after USCT soldiering ended). Their service also provided avenues for prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who used Black military service to make clear demands for slavery and racial discrimination to end. Meanwhile, various Black communities (especially Black women) lobbied to protect their civil rights (while attempting to support USCT soldiers’ training). Additionally, the families of USCT soldiers vocalized to the Bureau of Pensions (a branch of the US government) to remember their collective wartime sacrifices through Civil War pensions. Their collective actions highlight that the history of USCT regiments requires an understanding of Black families and communities whose lived experiences remain relevant today.