In my twenties, not long out of college, I was approached by a middle-aged black woman about joining the National Council of Negro Women. Proud of myself as a young black woman, I wasn’t interested in joining a group of middle-aged Negro women.
I’d forgotten that particular bit of callowness until I read Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: The History of African American Women and Religion by historian Bettye Collier-Thomas. The NCNW is among the organizations Collier-Thomas profiles as she looks back on two centuries of black women’s organizations that headed grassroots social, political, and education reform movements.
Middle-aged myself now, I can understand that my would-be recruiter had been trying to bring in young women to keep this vital organization moving into the future. And apparently, they have done just fine without me.
NCNW was part of an alphabet soup of organizations cited by Collier-Thomas as she highlighted the works of famous black women — Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Mary McLeod Bethune — and now lesser known women, including Nanny Helen Burroughs, a leader in the Natinoal Baptist Convention Women’s Convention, and Julia Foote, a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, as well as the scores of women who never became well known.
At any black church of decent size, you can still see women’s groups with members struggling against racism, as well as sexism — inside and outside the church — while they support mission work abroad and social causes at home.
I have been fascinated by the trend among historians to record the lives of ordinary people, providing glimpses of the lives of people who weren’t famous at the time and didn’t go on to become famous, like many of the women mentioned in Collier-Thomas’ book.
Collier-Thomas combed through many a church archive in the course of her research. Several years ago, while working on a history project with a church, I found an archive full of evidence of how church groups, particularly the women’s auxiliaries, helped initiate newcomers from the South during the Great Migration, educating them to the ways and mores of city living, helping them to find jobs and housing, getting them engaged in the struggle for social justice in the Northern cities that turned out to be something less than the Promised Land.
That church archive and Collier-Thomas’ book are vivid examples of how people live their lives and don’t always recognize that they are making history. That their letters, journals, newsletters, church bulletins, and other ephemera (these days would that include e-mail and other electronic communications?) will figure in some historian’s search and writings far into the future.