Tag Archives: Sarah Parker Remond

Lucy Parsons: A(nother) Black Woman Whose Name Should Be a Household Word

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Debbie says:

Black History Month tends to concentrate on a few already-famous (male) icons, whom you can name as well as I can, rather than looking at the people who should be famous but aren’t.  I recently heard Brittany Packnett talking about Pauli Murray as one important example.  I wrote here in January about Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond, black suffragists who also fit that bill.  There are dozens of others, of course.

One of my favorite characters in all of American history is Lucy Parsons; Zaron Burnett III has a fantastic take on her in How a Freed Slave Wrote the Playbook for People Power. He backs his historical comparison up even further than this quotation shows:

As the top one percent conspired to grab tighter control over the business and politics spheres of the day, profits were prioritized over people. Legislation was passed by store-bought politicians. Gross inequality made the country’s other problems fester like a neglected wound. To complicate matters, tensions were heightened on the ground level by a growing backlash against the waves of immigrants arriving on the nation’s shores. Xenophobia and bigotry were on the rise. This happens when people feel financially insecure. It’s one of the surest indicators that hearts will turn cold, prejudiced. It reliably divides people.

Onto this anxious scene burst a young, wildly charismatic woman of color, equally intelligent and beautiful. She proclaimed economic inequality morally wrong. An avowed socialist, she crisscrossed the country making her case for a better, more equitable United States. Of course the rich and powerful despised this moralistic young woman who seemingly came out of nowhere, gifted with a devastating magnetism that she wielded like a weapon in her fight to advocate for a better country. They tried to dismiss her. That failed. They tried to make her look foolish in the press. That, too, failed. She would not be denied. She had a moral fire that burned within, radiating from the inside out. This radical brilliance paired well with her flair for publicity.

The year was 1886. The woman was Lucy Parsons.

The comparison to AOC is amusing, and dead on target, but not as interesting as Parsons herself. Burnett walks us through her role as the mother of nonviolent resistance:

My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.

He interrogates her attitudes toward race, which were perhaps less disturbing in 1886 than  they can feel in 2019. The daughter of a slave, Parsons was light-skinned and married a white man, and seems to have been content to have been identified as “Spanish-Indian.” Her biographer, Jacqueline Jones, has done enormous work to clarify Parsons’ actual history, and the results of her research can be found in Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical. He then links these issues to a discussion of the contemporary role of identity politics in radical politics.

Parsons and her husband Albert were involved in the political tensions leading up to the Haymarket Affair. Albert and six other men were sentenced to death because some unidentifiable person on the edge of the demonstration threw a bomb; Albert was eventually executed. Lucy had fought tirelessly for his release and was very public about the government’s refusal to let her and her two children say goodbye.

She lived another 60 years and she never stopped fighting for justice, socialism, and an equitable society. When she died, as Burnett points out, “American women” had had the right to vote for 22 years, but it would be 22 years more until black women gained that right in any degree of actuality.

Burnett sets forth the “playbook” she created, and he does it well.His comparisons to AOC and other rising women of color are apt. However, Parsons herself shines through this article, as she did in life, holding the reader’s interest and making us want to know more — and to do more.

Help make her a household name; talk about her every chance you get.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn: A Window into Black Suffragist History

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Debbie says:

I had never heard of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn until a friend sent me her New York Times obituary. I’m glad to know about her now.

Dr. Terborg-Penn, a professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore for
more than three decades, was the author of seven books, most notably, African
American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (1998).

It was one of the first book-length examinations of black women in the suffrage
movement, and it challenged the existing narrative that was dominated, and framed,
by white activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Dr. Terborg-Penn’s book was a counterweight to History of Women’s Suffrage, a
six-volume work, begun in 1881, that was edited by Anthony, Stanton and Matilda
Joslyn Gage. That opus more or less erased from the picture the many black women
who Dr. Terborg-Penn said had attended suffrage meetings, organized suffrage clubs
and promoted the cause.

Virtually no corner of American history is immune from whitewashing, and the suffragist movement is demonstrably no exception.  Stanton and Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, are perhaps the best-known white suffragists. Anthony, in particular, is somewhat of a household word, and was the figure on the U.S. dollar coin for two short periods in the late 20th century. Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond are names I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know.  Here’s a little bit about each of them:

Having been an avid suffragist during her years as an Oberlin student, Terrell continued to be active in the happenings within suffragists circles in the National Association Woman Suffrage Association. It was through these meetings that Mary Terrell became associated with Susan B. Anthony. An association which Terrell describes in her biography as “delightful, helpful friendship”[4] which lasted until Anthony’s passing in 1906. What grew out out of Terrell’s association with NAWSA a desire to create a formal organizing group amongst black women in America to tackle issues of lynching, the disenfranchisement of the race and development a new educational reform. Being the one of few African-American women who was allowed to attend NAWSA’s meetings, Terrell spoke directly about the injustices and issues within the African-American community.

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In 1856, the American Anti-Slavery Society hired a team of lecturers, including Remond, her brother Charles, already well known in the US and Britain; and Susan B. Anthony, to tour New York State addressing anti-slavery issues. Over the next two years, she, her brother, and others spoke in Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. She and other African Americans were often given poor accommodation owing to their race.

Although she was inexperienced, Remond rapidly became an effective speaker. William Lloyd Garrison praised her “calm, dignified manner, her winning personal appearance and her earnest appeals to the conscience and the heart.”[8] Over time, she became one of the society’s most persuasive and powerful lecturers. She toured England, Scotland and Ireland between 1859 and 1861, fundraising for the anti-slavery cause.[9]

From their Wikipedia entries, it would appear that Terrell was close to Anthony and Remond worked with her, and nonetheless they are mere footnotes in the white history books.  Remond came to suffrage as a cause later than Terrell did, and both of them (and Anthony) were active in abolitionist, anti-slavery work as well.

Terborg-Penn seems to have demonstrated a very clear understanding of the racial split in the suffragist movement, and the racism shown by the white activists:

Black women, she said, were shunted aside in the history books because their goals
had diverged from those of the white, mostly upper-middle-class women who had led
the charge. White women wanted parity with white men, while black women, only
just emerging from slavery, wanted to use the ballot box to fight the racial oppression
that was engulfing the South.

The racial split became glaringly obvious in 1913, when the white organizers of a
major suffragist parade in Washington ordered black participants to march in the
rear.

Terborg-Penn engaged in activism as well as scholarship, and in both arenas was clear-eyed about white racism:

Her activism, fueled by her father, who believed strongly in civic engagement,
blossomed in college. She led a protest when Queens College would not let Malcolm
X speak on campus. On weekends, with a handful of other black students, she
marched in front of an F. W. Woolworth & Co. store in Manhattan in solidarity with
blacks who had staged a sit-in at an all-white Woolworth lunch counter in
Greensboro, N.C., where they had been refused service.

“We got the same response in New York City as in North Carolina,” Dr. Terborg-Penn
recalled at a conference in 2016. “White America was not ready for this. We needed
to stay in our place.”

We are extraordinarily fortunate that she found a place, instead of staying in her place, and shone a light on these important chapters in American — and Black — history.