By Timothy Braatz
Black History Month was created to celebrate the achievements of people typically excluded from the telling of U.S. history. In that spirit, here are three remarkable historical figures:
Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in New York around 1797. She was sold several times and suffered rape and other abuses. In 1826, she and her infant daughter fled a slave owner. The next year, New York abolished slavery, and Baumfree used the courts to rescue her young son from an Alabama slave owner—the first legal victory for a black woman against a white man.
Baumfree worked as a housekeeper until 1843, when she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and became a traveling preacher. “The Spirit calls me,” she told her friends, “and I must go.” Despite often hostile audiences, she spoke against slavery and for women’s rights.
“You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much,” she said.
After the Civil War, she worked for women’s suffrage and assisted former slaves. She was one of the first black riders to desegregate trolley cars in Washington, D.C.
Araminta Ross was born into slavery in Maryland around 1822. A blow to the head, suffered when she was young, left her with chronic headaches and hypersomnia. In 1849, she ran away from slavery, took refuge in Philadelphia, and changed her named to Harriet Tubman — a tiny and frail, poor and illiterate, dark-skinned woman with a brain injury, but also a powerful faith in God.
Troubled by thoughts of those left behind, Tubman returned numerous times to Maryland to guide relatives and friends north to freedom.
“I never ran my train off the track,” Tubman later said, “and I never lost a passenger.” Abolitionists called her “Moses.” Slaveowners offered rewards for her, dead or alive. Believing the Civil War was part of God’s plan to end slavery, she served the Union Army as an unpaid spy, cook, laundress and herbalist nurse. As a scout, she directed the Combahee River Raid, which freed more than 700 slaves.
After the war, with slavery outlawed, Tubman settled in New York, married and adopted a daughter. She turned her house into the first nursing home for aging blacks. In 1898, she went on a speaking tour in support of women’s suffrage and was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. That same year, she underwent brain surgery without anesthesia — and still lived 15 more years.
Ida Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862, three years before slavery was abolished. When she was 16, her parents died from yellow fever. To support her siblings, she became a teacher and moved to Memphis. In 1884, a conductor dragged Wells off a train after she refused to give up her seat — 70 years before Rosa Parks. She won a lawsuit against the train company, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned it.
“Oh, God,” Wells thought, “is there no justice for us in this land?”
Inspired, Wells began writing for black church newspapers. After she condemned school segregation and racist lynchings, in 1892, she was forced to flee to the North. As a journalist, she became the leading investigator of the racist murders of blacks.
“The way to right wrongs,” she insisted, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
In 1900, she led a successful campaign to prevent the segregation of Chicago schools. In 1909, she was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She campaigned constantly for anti-lynching laws. Federal officials denounced her as a “race agitator.”
In Chicago, Wells married a widower with two sons, gave birth to four children, and hyphenated her last name. This was an unusual practice at the time, but Ida Wells-Barnett, like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, was an independent thinker and an early feminist. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to teach black women how to engage in civic matters. She refused to let white women keep her out of a national suffrage parade. In 1930, a year before her death, she became one of the first black women to run for public office.
There is much to learn from these three women. Born at the very bottom of society, living as refugees from racist violence, they weren’t content with personal liberation. Even as they raised children, they used their limited resources and remarkable talents, and risked their lives, to pursue justice for others. Unlike many white suffragists, they didn’t separate the rights of blacks from the rights of women. For them, it was a single struggle — human rights for all.
Tubman had a favorite metaphor: If you enjoy cherries, plant cherry trees for the next generation.
Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College in California, and teaches online and lives in Bonners Ferry. See more of his work at saddleback.edu/tbraatz.
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