Searching the silences

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Searching the silences

Professor Carla Peterson recovers the silenced lives of black women activists in the 19th century

by Alexis Charles on Wednesday, May 9, 2012 - 8:43am

Activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, circa 1880 (source: Wikipedia)American history textbooks highlight important activists of the antebellum era such as prominent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist and women’s rights leader. Yet, the voices of black women activists are often missing in the history books of this period leading up to the Civil War.

Literary critic and professor of English, Carla Peterson, set out to question this silence. Searching through the historical records of the antebellum North, she has come to understand the varying presences and significant absences of black women. During her talk at Stanford, Peterson discussed her intense research to uncover the lives of black women.

Following the framework provided by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past, she framed her discussion around two types of historical “silences” that could account for the lack of black women in historical archives. Peterson revealed a “silence of sources” – an absence resulting from black women being kept out of public recognition and voice at the time when they were, in fact, active. She also uncovered a “silence of the archives,” suggesting that the activism of black women was not recorded despite their active participation in the social fabric. As Peterson noted, “These silences are really important because they go to the issue of what kinds of historical narratives are written and what versions of history we learn.”

Silencing black women activists in the antebellum era

When searching through the historical record, Peterson discovered instances where black women were deliberately excluded from public activism and barred from leadership roles, primarily in male-governed organizations such as the church, the press and freemasonry. She found records of events where black men and women share a podium but, “it’s the men who speak,” Peterson said.

Image of American poet and activist Frances Ellen Watkins HarperIn her book “Doers of the Word”:  African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880), Peterson identified several black women who worked to get around restrictions set for them. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a free-born poet, women’s rights activist and abolitionist, preached, lectured and wrote on social issues in separate forums. Harper’s uncle and cousin were well-known activists of the time and Harper’s cousin worked with Frederick Douglass, yet as Peterson said, “I never found their name coupled with Frances Harper. They all did their activism. Yet I never found a moment when they worked together. They seemed to be working very parallel but separate.”

Uncovering hidden archives of black women activists

The racially integrated female abolition groups in Philadelphia and Boston were established venues for black women’s activism. The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, for example, was known for its progressive attitude that brought black and white women together from its inception. Other groups were integrated at the urging of well-known white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The integrated abolition groups became a forum for black women to move beyond anti-slavery work to focus on issues of their own choosing in their communities.

In Philadelphia black women started the Colored Female Produce Society of Pennsylvania and were integral organizers for the Free Produce Movement that advocated a consumer boycott of produce grown by slave-labor. Because black women were already involved in interracial activism with white women they were working within a society that was amenable to black women being organized public activists. This established history of public activism allowed black women’s organizations to produce documentation of their work that could be preserved and then put into an archive. “Interracial antislavery work and black community work really went hand-in-hand during that period,” Peterson asserted. “There’s a real interdependence which allowed black women to do work and allowed for creation of an archive.”

Black Gotham book coverThe activist climate in antebellum New York City was markedly different: female abolition groups were not racially integrated. Thus, as she began the research for her most recent book Black Gotham: African American Elite Life in Nineteenth-Century New York City, Peterson faced a dearth of information about black women activists in the New York. Peterson decided to employ a different research tactic to uncover an archive, a tactic she called “going through the back door.” She scoured white records and white newspapers for mentions of African American persons or organizations to further explore. She discovered black schoolteachers and fundraising fairs led by black women for the Colored Orphan Asylum. In this way, Peterson found black women activists.

Postwar archives illuminate black women’s activism

In the postwar period more information on black and white women’s activism was recorded and preserved, and Peterson’s “back door” tactic illuminated a new archive that sheds new light on history of women’s activism. In the late 19th century, women organized clubs for social reform, self-development and women’s rights. The history of this “women’s club movement” is commonly marked with tales of racism from white women leaders and protests by black women. In this scenario, black women created their own clubs in reaction to racist acts and exclusion from white women’s clubs.

In The Brooklyn Daily, a newspaper that Peterson quipped, “was not a friend of black people” and the last place she thought she would find information on black women activists, she found an article about The Order of the King’s Daughters. The King’s Daughters was an organization for women of leisure and consisted of small “circles” of ten women who participated in social activities and charity work. Peterson discovered a circle of white women and a circle of black women who joined forces to work for The African American Zion Home for the Aged in Brooklyn with an integrated Board of Managers.  This new instance of interracial activism within The King’s Daughters counters the better-known narrative of white racism and reactionary black clubs. It offers a new way of looking at the club movement through a new archive.

Ultimately Peterson’s research proves that silence does not prove absence. “That is the whole point,” Peterson said, “because we tend to assume that if we do all this archival work, and we don’t see [black women’s activism], we tend to say well okay [black women] weren’t there.” By looking deeper Peterson reveals that black women were indeed active in the antebellum period as important public actors.


Professor Carla PetersonCarla L. Peterson is professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Doers of the Word: African-American women speakers and writers in the North (1830-1880) and Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth Century New York City and creator of Black Gotham Archive a digital archive extension of Black Gotham that offers a deeper understanding of nineteenth-century black New York and makes historical archives accessible.

Alexis Charles is a doctoral candidate in the Modern Thought & Literature program at Stanford. Her dissertation focuses on history and memory in contemporary black popular culture examining how black artists create alternative feminist futures from historical, social, and political constructions of blackness.   She is also a member of Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research's student writing team.