tagged with: Women’s History Month

We have all heard of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, but did you know that nine months prior to this incident a teenager refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a bus?

Associated Press; restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by policeofficer

The teenager, Claudette Colvin, born 1939, said the high school she attended in Montgomery, Alabama had observed Negro History Week in 1955, and she learned a lot about the Black freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. That day when she and her three friends were told to give up their seats for a white woman, Colvin, her history lessons still fresh in her brain, refused. In an interview with NPR, she stated, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”

For this act of defiance, Colvin was arrested and placed on indefinite probation. Although Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat came nine months before Rosa Park’s did, the NAACP did not acknowledge her as the one who started the Montgomery bus boycott. The reason? Colvin became pregnant at the age of 16, and the NAACP believed the face of an unwed mother was not appropriate to represent the movement, and so they chose to use Rosa Parks instead.

However, this did not stop Colvin from becoming an activist. She later joined three other women —Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald—as the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which legally put an end to racial segregation on public transportation in the state of Alabama.

Two things struck me as I read this story: 1) Colvin’s determination to defy the law came about as a result of her school having observed Negro History Week. At a time when pressure is being put on schools to ban certain books and to refrain from teaching African American history, I think this is significant. Browder v Gayle may never have come about had these young girls not been taught their history.

2) You may not always receive the recognition you deserve, but that should not stop you from joining with others who are fighting for the same cause you believe in. Most of us have only heard of Rosa Parks, and so we never stop to think of the thousands of unnamed persons who rallied behind the organizers of the boycott to elicit social change. Let us follow the example of Colvin and those who “believe[d] that a way will be made out of no way.” — MLK

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Harriet Jacobs Wikimedia commons

A tribute to Harriet Jacobs

March is Women’s History Month. Sandwiched between Black History Month (February) and Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April), March is devoted to recognizing and paying tribute to women who, by their sacrifice and accomplishments, helped to shape our history. With this in mind, I searched for someone who would fit both profiles and came up with Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl.

Introduction to slavery

Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in 1813, but as a young child she was unaware she was a slave because her masters treated her kindly and taught her to read and write. It was only when she was bequeathed to new owners, that Harriet experienced cruelty and sexual exploitation. Her new master Dr. Flint tried to force her into a sexual relationship, but she resisted him and instead consented to a relationship with a white neighbor in the hope of being protected from Dr. Flint. Harriet bore two children and, in order to escape Dr. Flint and protect her children, hid in her grandmother’s cabin. It would be seven years before she escaped to New York where she reunited with her daughter in Brooklyn.

Harriet’s writing journey

Harriet began publishing her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in serial form in the New York Tribune, but her accounts of sexual abuse were considered too shocking for readers at that time and so the publication ended. Phillips and Samson, a Boston publishing house, offered to publish the manuscript in book form if Harriet could get either Nathaniel Parker Willis, writer and publisher, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist author, to write a preface. This didn’t work out and eventually abolitionist Lydia Maria Child agreed. Child also edited the book. In 1861, Harriet published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonym Linda Brent, using fictitious names in the book to protect herself and her family.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Wikimedia Commons

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was a groundbreaking work at that time as it highlighted the cruelties of slavery and sexual assault against women. More than a century later, the contents of this book still resonate with women everywhere as we grapple with the increased incidents of sexual assault, separation of families and racial inequality in our society. I recommend this book as a gripping and sobering read for Women’s History Month.