Bringing together the scattered archives of 19th and early 20th century Black women’s organizing
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Black women organizers, activists, and intellectuals stepped into the forefront of Black organizing and social justice movements. They built on a long tradition of Black women’s activism, both public and private, and they worked within but also beyond efforts led by Black men, to center the unique perspectives and contributions of Black women. They led protests, organized for civil and political rights, founded civic and religious organizations, ran newspapers, and lectured and published on issues central to Black lives and freedom. The records of their achievements and contributions have been kept alive by generations of mostly Black bibliographers, biographers, historians, and scholars who documented their deeds, told their stories, and reprinted and republished their works. For many of these early Black women organizers, however, their papers and writings remain scattered across archives, some located in the papers of their Black male contemporaries, others awaiting continued preservations and digitization efforts.
Through digitization and transcription projects, community collectives and curricular initiatives, and scholarly-resource building and critical engagement, BWOA moves Black women unapologetically to the forefront of recovery and Black digital history projects, highlighting Black women’s often lost, erased, or forgotten contributions to our intellectual histories and social movements. Informed by the ethical practices and community imperatives of the early pioneers of Black women’s organizing, BWOA reimagines Black women’s archives as spaces for community engagement, participatory storytelling, and transformative public history. By focusing on engagement with Black women’s archives, BWOA enables us to recover the fuller range of Black women’s intellectual and activist work that speaks not just to the incomplete histories of their own moment, but to our continued struggles for equal rights, freedom, and social justice today.
Four women ground the initial phrases of the project—Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell. Each of these women represents a critical moment in the history of Black women’s organizing and as we delve deeper into their archives, we learn more about the vast collectives of Black men and women of which these women were apart: Mary Ann Shadd Cary—the first Black woman newspaper editor in North America and one of the only Black women delegates to the 1855 Colored Convention; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—the first Black woman to lecture for the American Antislavery Society as well as a suffragist, teacher, acclaimed writer and poet, activist, and mentor; Anna Julia Cooper—author of the first book-length statement of Black feminist thought and an intellectual architect of the movement for Black women-led national organizations; and Mary Church Terrell—the first president of the longest standing Black civic organization, the National Association of Colored Women. These four women represent a collective will to step into the forefront of their own national organizations and to assert their voices, perspectives, and organizational might into the collective struggle for Black freedom and civil rights.
In 2017, we partnered with the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and Douglass Day to support the digitization and transcription of Anna Julia Cooper’s papers held at MSRC. In 2020 and 2021, we worked to bring together archivists from across the US and Canada to support the digitization of Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s papers at the MSRC and Archives Ontario. Join us at bwoaproject.org as we continue building partnerships to locate, digitize, transcribe, and expand access to the writings and work of these early Black women organizers. Visit our Featured Women pages to learn more about our ongoing projects and resources and our Events page to learn more about our upcoming events and programs.
The Center for Black Digital Research
The Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk is a public-facing research center committed to bringing the histories of early Black organizing to digital life through innovative scholarship and collaborative partnerships. The Center is home to the award-winning Colored Conventions Project, Douglass Day, and the Black Women’s Organizing Archive.
The Black Women’s Organizing Archive (BWOA) is a digital humanities project led by students, faculty, and librarians.
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