My Lord, What a Morning—The Work of Black Folk*: Women

Black History Month: February
Women’s History Month: March
Authors, Educators, Ministers, and Singers

“Of my two ‘handicaps’, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black.” ~Shirley Chisholm

When manumission came, they left home. Walked off the plantation. After two hundred years of hard labor. With nothing to show for it but the thin clothes on their back. They were barefoot, half-naked, homeless, illiterate, penniless, and sore, but they were free. “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardship” (WEB DuBois). They didn’t ask for much. To go to school with the other children. To worship with the saints. To have a place to call their own. To vote like a man. To ride a rail coach like ordinary folk. So little. Inclusion. Acceptance. When they came to the church, the schoolhouse, the ballot box, the store, the train…the gatekeeper could’ve smiled and said, “Sure, come on in. We can always make room for one more. Welcome.” Instead they were snubbed. If they wanted a church, they’d have to erect their own. If they wanted schoolhouses, they’d have to build them themselves. So they did. Not shanties and shacks, but masonry edifices. They made their own brick. By hand. And with them assembled their own churches, their own schools, their own houses, their own businesses, their own printing presses, their own music houses, even their own funeral homes. A parallel world. An unnecessary duplication of what was already there—if the majority had simply shared. Considering their “ignorance,—not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities” (WEB DuBois), it is astounding what they accomplished. On their own. From such humble beginnings. Without anyone’s help. In so short a time. This is a celebration of a few of their remarkable stories.

Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was the eldest of three girls (Marian, Alyse, and Ethel), born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a working man and a mother who had attended Virginia College in Lynchburg, Virginia. The parents were devout Christians and active in their local Baptist church, where like many Black artists, Marian got her start singing Gospel songs. She attended grammar school, but, due to her dad’s early death, the family could not afford to send her to high school or give her music lessons. So the local pastor and church, perceiving her rare talent, joined together to finance her way through high school and music school (she studied privately under Giuseppe Boghetti). In 1925 she won first prize in a vocal competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. That August she was privileged to perform with the orchestra in concert. Afterward she stayed in New York and studied under Frank La Forge; Arthur Judson became her agent.

Three years later she sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall. After that she toured Europe, during which time Kosti Vehanen, Finnish pianist, became her accompanist and coach. In 1934 she changed agents when Sol Hurok gave her a better contract. The following year, in Salzburg, she met Arturo Toscanini, who told her she had a voice “heard only once in a hundred years.” An admirer, Albert Einstein, hosted her in 1937 when she was denied a room before her performance at Princeton University; Anderson stayed with Einstein again at times, including months before his death in 1955. In 1939 she was denied the use of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR); the DC Board of Education also refused her the use of the high school auditorium. In protest, thousands of DAR members resigned. The Roosevelts stepped in and arranged Anderson an open-air concert on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday, 9 April 1939. The event brought in a crowd of 75,000; millions more heard her by radio.

In 1943 Anderson finally sang at Constitution Hall; she was unimpressed. It was the same year she married Orpheus Hodge (“King”) Fisher (1900—1986), an architect, and acquired a step-son, James. The couple settled on 100-acre Marianna Farm in Danbury, Connecticut, where they were to live for practically the rest of their lives. That year, after she was awarded a $10,000 Bok Prize, she established the Marian Anderson Award to help struggling young singers.

In 1955 Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, New York. The following year she published her bestselling autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning. In 1957 she sang for US President Dwight Eisenhower and became a goodwill ambassador with the State Department; she toured Asia, giving twenty-four concerts in twelve weeks. Afterward Eisenhower appointed her a delegate to the UN Human Rights Committee; then in 1958, an official delegate to the UN. She was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1961 she sang at the inauguration of JFK; in 1963, at the Civil Rights March on Washington. She retired in 1965 after an international tour, though she still performed on occasion. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), the UN Peace Prize (1972), was engraved on a commemorative coin (1980), was pictured on the US 5,000 Series I US Savings Bond, and is featured on a US commemorative stamp (2005). Her birthplace in Philadelphia is now a historic site. One of the most celebrated African-Americans of her day, she is buried at Eden Cemetery, Collingdale, Pennsylvania (America’s oldest African-American public cemetery).

“Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty.” ~Alan Blyth

* * * * *

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was born near Maysville, South Carolina, the fifteenth of seventeen children; her parents, though former slaves, had worked hard to own their own place and to produce marketable crops. Good Christian people, they had instilled in her religious values and a strong work ethic. Mary Jane wanted to become a missionary to Africa, and with help of benefactors was able to attend Scotia Seminary, in North Carolina, and Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago; but she never went to the mission field—she became an educator instead. “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read,” she said, and she wanted to give every child she saw the same opportunity. She founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, Florida (now Bethune-Cookman University), with $1.50, faith in God, and five little female students. The quality of her school was better than the usual Black school; it rivaled the white schools. Bethune worked tirelessly to raise funds to make her school a success and a showcase of what Blacks could do. In 1918 her husband died, leaving her a widow, with one son; in 1923 the school went coed; and in 1924 the school became an arm of the United Methodist Church. Bethune served as president for twenty years (1923-42, 1946-47). She also served as a member of FDR’s Black Cabinet and was the founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women. Her leadership style was to work with white Americans to improve the lot of Black Americans. Her home in Daytona Beach (right) is a National Historic Landmark; her Council House, Logan Circle, in Washington, DC, is a National Historic Site; a sculpture of her is located in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC. She is buried on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University, Daytona Beach, Florida, and is featured on a US commemorative stamp (1985).

“She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills, and she some sort of doctor.” ~Louis E Martin

“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”~Mary Jane McLeod Bethune

* * * * *

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858-1964) was born to a slavewoman Hannah Stanley in the home of a wealthy North Carolina landowner George Washington Haywood, believed to be the father of Hannah’s seven daughters; Anna also had two older half-brothers, Andrew and Rufus. At age ten (1868), Anna began her education at the new St Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, founded by the Episcopal church to train young men for ministry and for higher education at university and to train schoolteachers for African-American schools. Anna studied there fourteen years, showing promise in liberal arts, math, science, literature, and languages, and working her way through school as a tutor. One of her classmates was George AC Cooper, whom she married; the marriage lasted only two years (1877-79), until his death; she never remarried. After graduation (1882) she stayed on as an instructor.

Cooper earned a BS at Oberlin College (1884), taught at Wilberforce University and St Augustine, then returned to Oberlin for her MS in math (1887). For many years she taught at M Street High School (later Perry School, then Dunbar High School), northwest Washington, DC. A school founded (1870) as a Black prep school, M Street was one of the nation’s first secondary schools for African-Americans and represented an important development in the city’s educational system. During her years teaching and serving as principal at M Street, Cooper completed her only book, A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South (1892), expressing the opinion that female intellectuals would enrich the Black community. Perhaps in consequence of her book, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter sorority for Black college women, was founded (1908) at Howard University.

At age fifty-six Cooper began doctoral studies at Columbia University (1914), but, because she had recently adopted the five children of her late half-brother (1915), was unable to complete the program. She later took her PhD at the University of Paris Sorbonne (1924); her dissertation was The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848. At age sixty-five, she was the fourth Black woman in American history to earn a PhD.

Cooper was one of the most prominent African-American scholars in US history. She died in Washington, DC, at age 105. Her memorial was held at St Augustine’s College, where her academic career began. Her school, M Street, was listed (1978) as a DC historic site and on the National Register of Historic Places (1986). She was buried beside her husband at the City Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina, and is featured on a US commemorative stamp (2009). On the liturgical calender of the Episcopal Church Cooper she was honored with a feast day: 28 February.

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” ~Anna Julia Cooper

* * * * *

Julia A J Foote (1823-1900), daughter of former slaves, was born in Schenectady, New York, and had little formal schooling. When the family moved to Albany, 1836, she began attending the African Methodist Episcopal church, was converted at age fifteen, and became an avid student of the Word. At age eighteen she married George Foote, a sailor, and moved to Boston, where she fell in with abolitionists and struggled with a call to preach. Her husband disapproved. Her church disapproved. Finally, 1844, the church excommunicated her because, in their eyes, women were not called to preach. This left her no recourse but to set out on her own. Fortunately, as if authenticating the call, she had no trouble finding homes, pulpits, and revivals where women preachers were welcomed. She became an itinerant evangelist, traveling to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, California, and Canada, and preaching abolition, to mixed congregations. Wisely perhaps, she did not travel during the Civil War, but she resumed after the war and participated in the Holiness revivals in Midwest in the 1870s. Eventually she became a successful AME missionary. In one meeting in Lodi, Ohio, 1878, she preached to a gathering of five thousand people. After she settled in Cleveland, she published her moving autobiography, A Brand Plucked From the Fire, now included in some literature anthologies. In 1894 she became the first female deacon in the AME church; in 1900, the second ordained female elder.

“It is not the altar or the minister who save souls, but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” ~Julia A J Foote

* * * * *

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first African-American poet and first published African-American female. Phillis was born in West Africa, sold into slavery, and came to live in Boston with John and Susanna Wheatley. The progressive Wheatleys educated her, permitting her not only to learn the three R’s, but to be schooled in the Classics (Greek and Latin), English literature, and the Scriptures. Phillis was so academically talented that the Wheatleys let someone else do the housework so she could devote herself to her studies. She credited her Christian experience to her coming to America. At age twenty, she accompanied Wheatley’s son to England and met significant members of society, including the mayor of London. There she also published a book of poetry, including a poem about George Washington, another about George Whitefield.

As long as the Wheatleys lived, Phillis led a privileged life of a ward or a daughter; but upon their death and her manumission, life took a different turn. She married a poor man, suffered poverty and the loss of several children, and wound up a scullery maid at a boarding house. Since there was no camera back then, we don’t know what she looked like; but someone has given us a sketch (above left). A statue of her (left) depicts her astute mind. You may see it at the Women’s Memorial, Boston. She is buried at Copps Hill Burying Ground, Boston.

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” ~Wilma Rudolph 

* * * * *

Elizabeth Evelyn Wright (1872-1906) was born in rural Georgia to an African-American carpenter, John Wesley Wright, and a Cherokee woman, Virginia Rolfe. Elizabeth attended a Christian day school, held in the basement of St Phillips AME church. At age sixteen (1888) she entered Tuskegee Institute as a night student, paying her way by working in the school cafeteria. She once gave a speech, “What Should the Women of Our Race Do to Become Stronger?”, to the Alabama Teachers Association. After two years, at the suggestion of a Tuskegee trustee, she moved to South Carolina to teach at a rural Black school. She was there only about six months when white arsonists burned the school. She went back to Tuskegee, graduated (1894), then returned to South Carolina. All her Black schools failed because of white violence. She relocated to Greater Denmark, one of those interesting little towns across America named for geographical places, and started a night school for Black men, Denmark Industrial School (1897), modeled after Tuskegee. The initial facilities were above a store. Mr and Mrs Ralph Voorhees, philanthropists from Clinton, New Jersey, donated $5,000 to purchase land and erect the first building. The Voorhees Industrial School opened (1902) for male and female students at both elementary and secondary levels, with Wright as principal. Voorhees continued to support the school during its early years. For years it was the only Black secondary school in the Denmark area. The school was later affiliated with the Protestant Episcopal Church (1924), which assumed its support, and eventually became a junior college (1947), then an accredited four-year college (1962). At age thirty-four (June 1906) Wright married Martin A Menafee, the school’s treasurer, but shortly became ill and entered a sanitarium, Battle Creek, Michigan, where she died (December 1906). She was buried on the school campus, and on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church was honored with a feast day, 28 February, which she shares with Anna Julia Haywood Cooper.

“[Women] say things like they don’t want men opening doors for them anymore … Big deal. Black women have been opening doors for themselves … for a couple centuries in this country. Black women don’t quibble about things that are not important.” ~Wilma Rudolph

“Black women work out of necessity.” ~Wilma Rudolph

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

*The term “Black Folk” echoes WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk.

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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