These Black Women in History Specialized in the Wholly Impossible
February 26, 2020
By Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
Before 1619, Black women have made undeniable and substantial contributions to our country in spite of centuries of exploitation and victimization. And they continue to do so! Historians Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross came together to weave the wondrous tapestry of history through the perspective of those who’ve been left out of history books in A Black Women’s History of the United States. The US wouldn’t be what it is today without the Black women who were cisgender and transgender, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, reformers, enslaved, artists, activists, imprisoned, leaders, and everyday folks. These are some of the badasses you’ll meet in the book who, nevertheless, persisted in a country run by systemic racism and sexism.
Nannie Helen Burroughs
It is true that we [Black women] embody the motto coined by Nannie Helen Burroughs for the school she headed in 1909: “We specialize in the wholly impossible.” The motto, together with Nannie’s own history, stands as evidence that a Black woman could, and did, push past daunting obstacles to live a life decidedly less ordinary.
“We must have a glorified womanhood that can look any man in the face—white, red, yellow, brown, or black—and tell of the nobility of character within black womanhood,” Nannie proudly declared in a December 1933 address. Those ideals reflected her education and professional pursuits. Born in 1879, Nannie, who studied in Washington, DC, and later in Kentucky, would go on to become the president of the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls in the nation’s capital. Throughout her stewardship of the institution, the school went from standing on a rough clay hill to an eight-building compound resting on several acres of land estimated to be worth $225,000. Ideologically, Nannie refused to be limited by the extremes of her day. Though many referred to her as “Mrs. Booker T. Washington,” because of her emphasis on work and self-reliance, she embraced both industrial and classical education, and expressed early Black Nationalist and feminist ideologies. She encouraged race pride by celebrating dark skin, and she remained a champion of Black women’s voting and labor rights. Three years after her death, in 1961, the educational institution she served for decades was renamed the Nannie Burroughs School. Nannie’s life and the fact that so many know so little about her touch upon the complicated threads that are interwoven into African American women’s history.
African American female performers took to stages in cramped bars and grand halls alike, scenes awash in cigarette smoke, thinned gin, and explicit sexual entanglements. In cabarets, Black women engaged the personal in the blues to talk about issues such as domestic violence and incarceration but also to give voice to the erotic. Songs like Ma Rainey’s “Black Eye Blues” told the tale of Miss Nancy, whose man beat her, cheated on her, and took all of her money. It also told of her efforts to fight back by warning, “You low down alligator, just watch me/Sooner or later gonna catch you with your britches down.” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s performances also brazenly flouted heterosexual norms. With songs such as her 1928 hit “Prove It on Me Blues,” she crooned, “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/ They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men/Wear my clothes just like a fan/Talk to the gals just like any old man/’Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/Sure got to prove it on me.” The lyrics and performances exploded respectable concepts of how to be Black women and men in the world, and it opened up a space for a variety of sexual identities to emerge.
Black lesbians like Gladys Bentley donned tuxedos and played before raucous crowds eager to drink in Bentley and bathtub gin by the mouthfuls. Headlining clubs such as the Clam House, in top hat and coattails, Gladys in particular had a commanding presence that made her a top-selling artist in Jazz Age Harlem. As renowned poet Langston Hughes described: “Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard—a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.” Hughes beautifully captured the essence of Gladys, who made no secret of her intimate relationships with women.
Members of the Women’s Army Corps
Black women rushed to fill vacancies left by soldiers headed to fight in World War II. To be clear, the shifts in policy did not automatically translate into a better quality of life for Black women and their families, as racist attitudes persisted. However, as historians Sharon Harley, Francille Rusan Wilson, and Shirley Wilson Logan explain, “World War II brought a brief exhilarating period when six hundred thousand Black women got industrial jobs with good salaries, making army vehicles, riveting aircraft and tank parts, working in ship and rail yards, in munition plants, and in the arsenals.” Even so, Black women battled white women workers who refused to share shop floors with them, and in Detroit, white women led hate marches to prevent African American women from obtaining jobs. Labor unions and the NAACP launched concerted efforts that finally opened ten thousand jobs for African American women, though another twenty-five thousand stayed unemployed. Yet Black women remained ready to seize new career options. For example, when the Army recognized and incorporated the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943, even though the WACs would be segregated, four thousand Black women quickly signed up.
If any Black servicewomen believed their primary adversary was abroad, events in 1945, the year the war ended, would have caused them to rethink the notion. Many enlisted Black women hoped to serve their country, earn money, and benefit from valuable job training. Alice Young, of Washington, DC, who already had a year of nursing school, joined the “colored WACs” after a recruiter said her experience would qualify her for more medical training. But when she arrived at Fort Devens, in Massachusetts, after basic training, Young and the rest of the Black female soldiers learned that they were there to “scrub and wash floors, wash dishes, and do all the dirty work.” White WACs learned nursing skills, in addition to being spared the cleaning tasks assigned to African American women. Black women voiced their concerns, but the only available Black woman officer, Lieutenant Tenola Stoney, a supply officer for the Black WACs, had little power. The white officers, Colonel Walter Crandall and Lieutenant Victoria Lawson, isolated Black WACs rather than, as scholar Sandra M. Bolzenius writes, “incorporating them into the post’s regular functions.”
Marginalized, degraded, and largely ignored, Black women at Fort Devens reached their breaking point and decided to strike. The decision reflected months of indignities, which were compounded by an especially cold, dreary winter and traumatizing events such as the attempted suicide of one of their ranks, Private Beulah Sims, in February 1945. When the women failed to report for duty, officers tried to reason with them. The exchanges became heated and negotiations broke down. On the second day of the strike, General Sherman Miles informed the striking Black WACs that if they did not immediately return to work, they would face a court-martial. He did add that he would investigate their concerns. Most then returned to work, reluctantly. But an upset and despondent Alice Young declared to Lieutenant Stoney, “I’m reporting back from my ward, and I feel like I’d rather take a court-martial than go back under present conditions, unless conditions are changed.” She was not alone.
About Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
Daina Ramey Berry is the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History and associate dean of the Graduate School at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author or co-editor of several previous books, including The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, winner of the 2017 SHEAR Book Award for Early American History. Connect with her at drdainarameyberry.com or @DainaRameyBerry on Twitter.
Kali Nicole Gross is the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her previous books include Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America, winner of the 2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in nonfiction. Learn more at kalinicolegross.com or connect with her on Twitter @KaliGrossPhD.