To historian Linda M. Perkins, "Women of Courage" is more than a snappy title for the photographic exhibition of black women opening Sunday at the California Afro-American Museum. These women are, she points out, the last of their kind, women who made their mark as blacks and as females "in a society that valued neither"--and who placed "racial uplift" before self-interest.
Perkins, a visiting scholar at UCLA researching a book on black women and education, is at 35 young enough to be the granddaughter of most of the women, the vast majority of whom were born between 1870 and 1920. For her generation, Perkins said, "It's a completely different ballgame" and the attitude of many middle-class blacks is, "I don't owe anything to anybody."
"I'm just overwhelmed," she said, "by the frequency with which I hear young black college kids say, 'I just see myself as a person.' Race is not relevant to them. But the reality is that it's relevant in this world. It's naive of them."
The "Women of Courage," who overcame overt racism and legal segregation to become physicians and educators and catalysts for social change, shared a basic belief, Perkins said, that "education, religion and organizations were essential to the survival and growth of the black communities" of America.
Writing in her introduction to the catalogue for "Women of Courage," which is based on the Black Women Oral History Project of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, Perkins emphasizes the shared "sense of self-pride and self-respect" and the obligation these women felt to courageous black women who had gone before them.
One of the "Women of Courage," Minnie Fisher, a community activist and civic worker born in 1896 in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Miss., expressed it this way: "I was taught that my parents wanted me to be able to serve my people."
The oral histories upon which the photographic exhibit is based were taped between 1976 and 1981 with subjects selected by committee from several hundred suggested names. Few are famous. Their fields are diverse--the arts, law, volunteer service, social work. Many of the women, who were photographed by Judith Sedwick of Massachusetts, were born during what Perkins calls "the best of times and the worst of times," when opportunities for white women were escalating and those for black Americans declining.
And what they have to say about their lives, about being black and being female, could provide some answers, Perkins said, to the question concerned blacks today are asking: "Will we cease to be our own people? Will there be anything distinctively black about us?"
With a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation, Perkins is writing "Each One, Pull One: Race 'Uplift,' Education and Black Women." It is a task to which she brings impeccable credentials--a Ph.D in the history of education and higher education from the University of Illinois, two years as a fellow and two as assistant director of the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College of Harvard University--together with a conviction that "the history of black women and education is virtually an unexplored topic."
In her seven years of research, which span the period from the mid-19th Century through the 1960s, Perkins has combed library archives, studied anti-slavery reports and century-old black newspapers and has read and re-read transcripts of taped conversations with the "Women of Courage." (The original tapes will be housed permanently in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. Copies will go to 13 institutions, among them Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.)
The women are somewhat atypical, she said, in that many had college-educated parents; they also had inherited from two previous generations of black women a fierce will to pull other blacks up with them. For the most part, Perkins contends, that is a flame that has been snuffed--"It seems that every generation we become more assimilated and more mainstreamed.
"I know black kids who've never been to a black church, never had a black date," she said. If they think that eliminates racism, she added, they're living in "Fantasyland."
The reality, Perkins said, is that the black community at large and its elite need one another--"Given where blacks are educationally, economically, socially and politically, we don't have the luxury of saying, 'I'm an individual and race doesn't matter.' "
These are some of the "Women of Courage": Rosa Parks, the Montgomery, Ala., department store tailor whose refusal to give her bus seat to a white man was an early chapter in the civil rights movement in 1955; Clementine Hunter, a primitive painter from the Cane River area of Louisiana whose canvases are a unique record of black plantation life; Charleszetta (Mother) Waddles, an ordained minister and founder of the Perpetual Mission for Savings Souls of All Nations in Detroit.