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The Underground Railroad  

Diane Miller

Africans and their descendants enslaved in the western hemisphere resisted their status in several ways. One of the most consequential methods was self-liberation. While many date the Underground Railroad as starting in the 1830s, when railroad terminology became common, enslaved people began escaping from the earliest colonial period. Allies assisted in journeys to freedom, but the Underground Railroad is centered around the enslaved people who resisted their status and asserted their humanity. Fugitives exhibited creativity, determination, courage, and fortitude in their bids for freedom. Together with their allies—white, Black, and Native American—they represented a grassroots resistance movement in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While some participation was serendipitous and fleeting, the Underground Railroad operated through local and regional networks built on trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. At its root, the Underground Railroad was both a migration story and a resistance movement. African Americans were key participants in this work as self-liberators and as operators helping others to freedom. Their quest for freedom extended to all parts of what became the United States and internationally to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and beyond.

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African American Women and Feminism in the 19th Century  

Teresa Zackodnik

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.