Featured

Other Gals Who Climbed to the Top Pt. 1

Alexandra_David-Neels
By Preus museum – Flickr: Alexandra David-Neels, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14876154

Fifty years earlier, Arlene Blum would not have been allowed in certain areas in the Great Himalayan range. It was an entirely different kind of explorer who helped open those gates. In 1924, spiritual seeker Alexandra David-Neel was the first Western woman to visit Tibet’s “Forbidden City,” Lhasa, in its mountain perch. Dressed as a beggar and traveling so light that they didn’t even have blankets, the fifty-five-year-old Alexandra and a young monk, made the perilous climb up 18,000 feet to the holy city. Her travelogue is one of the most treasured resources in Asian studies, published as My Journey to Lhasa.

Opera singer turned scholar, the intrepid Frenchwoman also has the honor of being the first Western woman to have an audience with the Dalai Lama in his Indian exile. Alexandra never did anything halfway and found the study of Buddhism so appealing that she moved into an ascetic’s snowy cave, and undertook the studies and spiritual practice of a Buddhist nun. She became such an adept that she reportedly was able to control her body temperature through meditation, and there are legends of levitation and other psychic phenomenon. Poo-poohing “the supernatural,” her explanation for these matters is simple and practical: she learned from the Tibetans that it is all a matter of management of natural energies. One of the world’s earliest scholar’s in Eastern Studies and Oriental mysticism, Alexandra David-Neel’s unique combination of daring and curiosity made her one of the most fascinating women in any part of the world.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Coretta Scott King: Unshakeable Faith

Coretta_Scott_King
By Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – Coretta Scott King © copyright 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Like the Robesons, the Kings had a marriage based on love—for each other and for racial equality. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta gained recognition in her own right as a pillar of the civil rights movement. A talented musician, Coretta was born in Alabama in 1927 and was educated at Antioch, where she got a degree in music and elementary education and was exposed to whites in a very different environment than the South, learning a great deal about techniques to foster interracial communication. In 1953, she married Martin Luther King, Jr. while they were both college students, and they pursued a life together, her music—she got a higher degree at the New England Conservatory of Music—and his theological degree. From a long line of ministers, Martin felt a call to become a pastor, a decision that found the young couple moving to Montgomery, Alabama, after their education. They had their first of four children in their first year at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and became deeply involved in the actions of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride. As the footage shows, Coretta was right beside Martin at every protest, fighting for the rights of all African Americans. She also participated in fundraising for the movement by giving more than thirty concerts in Europe and the United States to raise money for Martin’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The Kings traveled extensively in their work—to Ghana, to India, to Nigeria, and in 1964, to Norway to receive Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, the world watched in horror as Martin was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, during a garbage workers strike. Coretta didn’t shrink from the work at hand and led a protest in Memphis four days later with her children at her side. Her quiet dignity captured the nation; that year she was voted Woman of the Year and Most Admired Woman by college students.

From that fateful day, Coretta stepped forward and took up the mantle of leadership in the civil rights movement, which she shared with the young Jesse Jackson. Coretta amazed everyone with her stamina and heart as she made speech after speech and led march after march. She has received innumerable awards for her tireless efforts in her lifetime. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change and has also led the attention of the nation into new directions, organizing antiwar protests, antinuclear and anti-apartheid lobbies, and employment for African Americans. More than 100 colleges have given her honorary doctorates. Coretta Scott King has never hesitated to give herself to the struggle for freedom and justice, viewing it as both “a privilege” and “a blessing.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Fannie Lou Hamer: Bravery Unbound

Fannie_Lou_Hamer_1964-08-22
By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine; Restored by Adam Cuerden – the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Public Domain.

Fannie Lou Hamer grew up a sharecropper’s daughter in Montgomery, Mississippi, where she was exposed to the worst face of racial injustice. Forced to quit school in the sixth grade to work in the cotton fields to help support her family, she got involved in the effort to register blacks to vote in 1962. At the time, a literacy test was required in order to secure the right to vote, and Fannie helped teach people so they could pass the test. One day, Fannie was on a bus with a group of fellow African American youths who were challenging the “whites only” policy at the bus terminal diner. When they were attacked by state troopers called in to deal with the “insurrection,” Fannie was hurt badly and jailed with everyone else from the bus. Her sufferings had only begun, though. Hamer was incarcerated in a cell with two black men who were ordered to beat her with a metal-spiked leather billy club. Fannie was permanently blinded in one eye by this beating and suffered kidney damage, but she emerged with even more inner resolve to put an end to racial injustice. Fannie worked without cessation for many related causes: Head Start for black schools, jobs for poor blacks, and against the Vietnam War because she felt black soldiers were being sent to protect rights they themselves didn’t have at home. Fannie Hamer risked her life over and over to improve the lot of her people until her death in 1977, never receiving the attention that was her due. A true unsung shero, her essential belief was, “We serve God by serving our fellow (human beings).”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Rosa Parks: The First Lady of Civil Rights

Rosaparks
By Unknown – USIA / National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306, Public Domain.

Rosa Parks gave a human face to the civil rights movement. She showed how the issues addressed in all of the speeches affected a woman’s life in the course of an ordinary day. The woman was Rosa Louise McCauley Parks; the day became an extraordinary day that rocked the nation and changed history.

Born in 1913, Rosa grew up in Pine Level, Alabama, with her schoolteacher mother, Leona. She helped her mother take care of her sickly grandparents and run the household, because Rosa’s father had gone to work up north and effectively disappeared from their lives. Later, she moved in with her aunt Fanny and enrolled in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school, where she was exposed to the liberal ideals of teachers raised in the north. Rosa took her teachers’ lessons to heart, as well as the stories her elderly grandparents told about the evils of slavery, sparking a sense of justice that would only grow.

Rosa vacillated between following in the footsteps of her mother and becoming a teacher and pursuing her own dream of training to be a nurse. Then in 1932, she met and married Raymond Parks, who had struggled up from an impoverished background where he wasn’t allowed to attend school because of his color. To augment her husband’s income from barbering, Rosa dabbled in many lines of work, including maid, seamstress, and secretary.

Her involvement in civil rights grew. She was the first woman to start attending the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and also worked in the effort to register blacks to vote. Rosa often walked home from work to avoid the “back of the bus” issue until December 1, 1955, when she was returning home from a long day of sewing at a Montgomery department store. The buses from downtown were always fairly crowded and had a section designated for blacks behind the ten rows of seats in the front for white folks. Rosa was sitting in the first row of the “blacks only” section when the white section filled up, leaving a white man without a seat. The tacit understanding was that, in such a scenario, the black person was supposed to stand and let the white person have the seat. The white bus driver called for the four black people in the front row of the black section to get up and let the white man have the row. Rosa refused and the driver called the police.

Her solitary action started a firestorm of controversy, including a bus boycott and protest march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. A fascinating footnote to the incident is that Rosa had been evicted by the very same bus driver twelve years before. Though there had been several incidents on Montgomery buses, Rosa stuck to her guns and became the pivotal legal case for the burgeoning civil rights movement’s attack on segregated seating. Upon going to trial and being found guilty, she refused to pay her fine and appealed the decision. Her actions cost Rosa and her husband dearly; they both lost their jobs and were the recipients of threats to their lives. Undaunted, Rosa worked with the carpooling efforts that enabled blacks to continue their 381-day boycott of the bus system.

The sacrifices of the black community were not in vain, because the U.S. District Court ruled segregated seating to be unconstitutional. However, due to the controversy, Rosa, the shero who started the battle by keeping her seat, couldn’t get a job anywhere in Montgomery. Rosa, Raymond, and Rosa’s mother moved to Detroit and started a new life there, Rosa working as a seamstress and for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She ultimately found a career in U.S. Representative John Coyner’s office. Rosa Parks’ courage in that split second moment when she made her decision is at the very crux of the victorious struggle for African Americans. Rosa worked diligently for the good of her community, traveling and speaking on behalf of the NAACP. She loved to talk to young people about the movement, for the work has truly only begun. Rosa Parks has become a symbol of fearlessness and fortitude. In 1980, Rosa was honored by Ebony magazine as “the living black woman who had done the most to advance the cause of civil rights.”

“You didn’t have to wait for a lynching. You died a little each time you found yourself face to face with this kind of discrimination.”

—Rosa Parks

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

 

Eslanda Goode Robeson: “Africans Are People”

Oberstes Gericht, Globke-Prozess, Publikum
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0708-0014-004 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Public Domain.

Eslanda Goode Robeson was the wife of the famous singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. However, she was an important shero in her own right, distinguishing herself both in political activism and as an anthropologist.

The daughter of a freed slave, Essie, born in 1896, was passionately interested in Africa and the conditions that made the mother continent vulnerable. Her mother, Eslanda Cardoza Goode, was of mixed race, born among South Carolina’s free blacks to an octoroon mother and a wealthy Spanish Jew, Isaac Nunez Cardoza. Essie’s uncle Francis Louis Cardoza was named as “the most highly educated Negro in America” by Henry Ward Beecher. When Essie was six, her father died of alcohol abuse and the family moved to New York City just in time for the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. Essie was well educated herself, attending Teachers College at Columbia University and one year of medical school, ultimately receiving her degree in chemistry from Columbia. Her other interests included a strong proclivity for politics and the desire to fight for racial equality. Essie was on her way to becoming a model for the new equality when she became the first black person to work in the pathology and surgery departments of Columbia Presbyterian, where she ran the lab. In the twenties, she met and married Paul Robeson; after hearing him sing at a party, Essie became convinced he had a future in show business. She talked him into performing and soon his career was launched. By the mid-twenties, Paul was the toast of Europe and America; Essie quit her job to travel with Paul and manage his career. However, over and over the duo suffered the sickening hypocrisy of a white society that lauded Paul as the toast of stage and screen while not allowing Essie and him to eat in the same restaurants as the white music patrons. To avoid the pain, Essie began to stay home and focus upon their shared dream of a modern black family—emancipated, educated, and enlightened.

In the thirties, the ever intellectually restless Essie developed an intense interest in anthropology and in Africa. Studying at London University and the London School of Economics, she became even more radicalized: “I soon became fed up with white students and teachers ‘interpreting’ the Negro mind and character to me,” she wrote later. “Especially when I felt, as I did very often, that their interpretation was wrong.”

She decided to make her own conclusions. She traveled to Africa several times, exploring widely, up the Congo and into the heartland by any means available. Her exploration led her to emphasize the importance of racial pride in overcoming racism, and she banded with other black people to found the Council of African Affairs. She was always extremely outspoken about the plight of her people as a result of slavery and colonialism and never backed down from a debate. She drew fire when she suggested the Soviet Union had created a better foundation for equality than the United States. In the forties, during World War II, she was especially vocal, perceiving that the war against Fascism was an opportunity for a more racially united and equal opportunity America. Her book, African Journey, was published in 1945; that same year, as a representative of the Council on African Affairs, Essie participated in the conference that founded the United Nations.

In the fifties, the activity and views of the Robesons were brought to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy who called her before the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy was no match for the brilliance and verbal dexterity of Essie, who turned the tables on him, drilling him with questions about the black civil rights issue. But McCarthy got his revenge, revoking both their passports, reducing Paul’s income from international concert tours to almost nil.

This only spurred Essie on to greater activism—ultimately her passport was reinstated and she traveled to Germany to receive the Peace Medal and the Clara Zetkin Medal,
a governmental award for women who have fought for world peace. She continued to write articles and give speeches on behalf of equality and justice until she died in 1965. No matter what the personal cost, Essie fought to free her people from the invisible bonds that still held them back. Her work was invaluable in the civil rights movement; her call for absolute racial equality rang clear and true: “No man can be free until all men are free.”

“I believe there will never be peace in the world until people have achieved what they fought and died for.”
—Eslanda Goode Robeson
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Nannie Helen Burroughs: The Practical Prophet

Nannie_Helen_Burroughs
By The Rotograph Co. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3b46093, Public Domain.

NAACP pioneer William Picken described Nannie Burroughs this way: “No other person in America has so large a hold on the loyalty and esteem of the colored masses as Nannie H. Burroughs. She is regarded all over the broad land as combination of brains, courage, and incorruptibleness.” Born in the Gilded Age in 1879, Nannie Burroughs was fortunate to be born into a family of ex-slaves who were able to establish a comfortable existence in Virginia, affording young Nannie a good education. Nannie applied for a job as a domestic science teacher and wasn’t hired because she was “too dark.” Later, she was turned down for a job as a government clerk because she was a black woman.

Nannie began dreaming of a way to prepare black women for careers that freed them from the traps of gender and bias. Nannie worked for the national Baptist Alliance for fifty years, starting as a bookkeeper and secretary. In her spare time, she organized the Women’s Industrial Club, providing practical clerical courses for women. Through the school she founded in 1909, the National Training School for Women and Girls, she educated thousand of black American women as well as Haitians, Puerto Ricans, and South Africans to send them into the world with the tools for successful careers. Her program emphasized what she called the three Bs: the Bible, the Bath, and the Broom, representing “clean lives, clean bodies, and clean homes.”

An advocate of racial self-help, Nannie worked all her life to provide a solid foundation for poor black women so they could work and gain independence and equality. She practiced what she preached. At one point, she wrote to John D. Rockefeller for a donation to her cause. He sent her one dollar with a note asking what a business-woman like her would do with the money. She purchased a dollar’s worth of peanuts and sent them to him with a note asking him to autograph each one and return them to her. She would then sell each one for a dollar.

She founded the Harriet Beecher literary society as a vehicle for literary expression and was also active in the antilynching campaigns. She gave Sojourner Truth a run for her money with dramatic speech-making and stirring lectures such as her headline-making speech in 1932: “Chloroform your Uncle Toms! What must the Negro do to be saved? The Negro must unload the leeches and parasitic leaders who are absolutely eating the life out of the struggling, frightened mass of people.”

One of her students once said that Nannie considered “everybody God’s nugget.” Nannie Burroughs’ pragmatic “grab your own bootstraps” approach to racial equality offered that chance to everyone who came into her purview.

“The training of Negro women is absolutely necessary, not only for their own salvation and the salvation of the race, but because of the hour in which we live demands it. If we lose sight of the demands of the hour we blight our hope of progress. The subject of domestic science has crowded itself upon us, and unless we receive it, master it and be wise, the next ten years will so revolutionize things that we will find our women without the wherewithal to support themselves.”
 — Nannie Helen Burroughs
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Ida B. Wells: Journalist for Justice

Mary_Garrity_-_Ida_B._Wells-Barnett_-_Google_Art_Project_-_restoration_crop
By Original: Mary GarrityRestored by Adam Cuerden – Based on image originally from NAEMVZELXQV2iw at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African American journalist and advocate of women’s rights, including suffrage. Though she was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months later the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves. Even though they were legally free citizens, her family faced racial prejudice and discrimination while living in Mississippi. Her father helped start Shaw University, and Ida received schooling there, but when she was 16, her parents and one of her siblings died of yellow fever. This meant that as the eldest, Ida had to stop going to school and start taking care of her eight sisters and brothers. Since the family direly needed money, Ida ingeniously convinced a county school official that she was 18 and managed to obtain a job as a teacher. In 1882, she moved to her aunt’s in Nashville with several siblings and at last continued her education at Fisk University.

A direct experience of prejudice in 1884 electrifyingly catalyzed Wells’ sense of the need to advocate for justice. While traveling from Memphis to Nashville, she bought a first-class train ticket, but was outraged when the crew told her to move to the car for African Americans. Refusing, Wells was forced off the train bodily; rather than giving in and giving up, she sued the railroad in circuit court and gained a judgment forcing them to pay her $500. Sadly, the state Supreme Court later overturned the decision; but this experience motivated her to write about Southern racial politics and prejudice. Various black publications published her articles, written under the nom-de-plume “Iola”. Wells later became an owner of two papers, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech.

Besides her journalistic and publishing work, she also as a teacher at one of Memphis’ black-only public schools. She became a vocal critic of the condition of these segregated schools. This advocacy caused her to be fired from her job in 1891. The next year, three African American store owners clashed with the white owner of a store nearby who felt they were competing too successfully for local business; when the white store owner attacked their store with several allies, the black store owners ended up shooting several white men while defending their store. The three black men were taken to jail, but never had their day in court – a lynch mob dragged them out and murdered all three men. Moved to action by this horrible tragedy, she started writing about the lynchings of a friend and others, and went on to do in-depth investigative reporting of lynching in America, risking her life to do so.

While away in New York, Wells was told that her office had been trashed by a mob, and that if she ever came back to Memphis she would be killed. She remained in the North and published an in-depth article on lynching for the New York Age, a paper owned by a former slave; she then toured abroad, lecturing on the issue in the hope of enlisting the support of pro-reform whites. When she found out that black exhibitors were banned at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, she published a pamphlet with the support and backing of famed freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as well as “A Red Record,” a personal report on lynchings in America.

In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women; and in 1898, she took her anti-lynching campaign to the White House and led a protest in Washington D.C. to urge President McKinley to act. She was a founding member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but later cut ties with the organization, feeling that it wasn’t sufficiently focused on taking action. Wells also worked on behalf of all women and was a part of the National Equal Rights League; she continuously fought for women’s suffrage. She even ran for the state senate in 1930, but the next year her health failed, and she died of kidney disease at the age of 68. Well’s life is a testament to courage in the face of danger.

“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

— Ida B. Wells

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Harriet Tubman: Harriet the Spy (Not Kidding)

by H Seymour Squyer
By Photographer: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

In her day, Harriet was lovingly referred to as Moses, for leading her people home to freedom. An escaped slave herself, she pulled off feat after amazing feat and gave freedom to many who would otherwise have never known it. Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, perhaps the best that ever was. She is best known for this activity, but she was also a feminist, a nurse, and, for a time, a spy. Her keenest interest was social reform, both for her gender and her people.

Born around 1821 on a plantation in Maryland, Harriet struggled with grand mal seizures after a blow to the head as a child, but the damage from a severely fractured skull didn’t stop her from the most dangerous work she could have possibly undertaken: taking groups of slaves to freedom in the north. During her slow recovery from being hit in the head with a two-pound weight by an overseer, she began praying and contemplating the enslavement of blacks, resolving to do what she could, with faith in a higher power. She married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, and lived in fear that she would be sold into the Deep South. When she heard rumors that she was about to be sold, she plotted her escape, begging John to come with her. He not only refused, but threatened to turn her in.

Harriet escaped to freedom by herself, but immediately plotted to return for her family members, using the Underground Railroad. She ultimately rescued all her family members except John; he had taken a new wife and remained behind. She led more than two hundred slaves to safety and freedom, encouraging her “passengers” with gospel songs sung in a deep, strong voice. She also developed a code to signal danger using biblical quotations and certain songs. Harriet Tubman always outfoxed the whites who questioned her about the groups of blacks traveling with her. She lived in constant threat of hanging, with a $40,000 price on her head, and many close calls. One of the most dramatic incidents shows Harriet’s resourcefulness and resolve when she bought tickets heading south to evade whites demanding to know what a group of blacks were doing traveling together. She always carried a gun to dissuade any frightened fugitives from turning tail. “You’ll be free or die,” she told them— and she never lost a passenger.

Harriet also started connecting with abolitionists in the North, developing a strong admiration for John Brown (she conspired with him in his raid at Harper’s Ferry) and Susan B. Anthony. During the Civil War, she nursed black soldiers, worked as a spy for the Union, and even led a raid that freed 750 slaves. After the war, she lived in Auburn, New York, in a house that had been a way station for the Underground Railroad, teaching blacks how to cope with newfound freedom; gathering food, clothing, and money for poor blacks; and founding a home for elderly and indigent blacks. Harriet’s last years were spent in abject poverty despite all she had given to others, but she died at the age of ninety-three having accomplished the task she set herself as a girl. She was the great emancipator, offering her people hope, freedom, and new beginnings. Reformer and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson named her “the greatest heroine of the age.”

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked to my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything.”

— Harriet Tubman
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.