Claudette Colvin

She was the original Rosa Parks.

Claudette_Colvin

Dubbed the original Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin was arrested in 1955 at the age of 15 for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded segregated bus.  The incident began when the bus she and her friends were on filled up and there was a white passenger standing in the aisle between them.  The driver wanted all of them to move to the back and stand so that the white passenger could sit.

“He wanted me to give up my seat for a white person and I would have done it for an elderly person but this was a young white woman. Three of the students had got up reluctantly and I remained sitting next to the window.” She informed the driver that she had paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right to remain right where she was.  Of course, the driver didn’t see it that way.  He continued driving and when he reached a juncture where a police squad car was waiting, he stopped.  Two officers boarded the bus and asked Claudette why she refused to give up her seat.  She was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus all the while shouting that her constitutional right was being violated.   She was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and assault.  There was no assault, of course.

Instead of being taken to taken to a juvenile detention centre, she was taken to an adult jail and spent three hours in a small cell with nothing inside of it except a broken sink and a cot without a mattress.  Her mother and pastor bailed her out.  Her mother, well aware of Claudette’ disappointment with the system and all the injustice they were receiving, said to her, “Well, Claudette, you finally did it.” 

After she was released from prison, her family feared that their home would be attacked, so armed with a shotgun, her father kept a vigil just in case the Klu Klux Klan showed up, while members of the community were lookouts.  Claudette was first person arrested for challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation policies and her story made a few local papers but nine months later Rosa Parks did the same thing and her story could worldwide coverage.

Claudette knew Rosa Parks very well. “I became very active in her youth group and we use to meet every Sunday afternoon at the Luther church.  Ms Parks was quiet and very gentle and very soft-spoken, but she would always say we should fight for our freedom.”

Claudette was one of the plantiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle during which she described her arrest.  “I kept saying, ‘He has no civil right… this is my constitutional right… you have no right to do this.’ And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person.

On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery’s laws mandating public bus segregation as unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the District Court decision on November 13, 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider, and on December 20, 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently.

Following her life of activism, Claudette gave birth to a son who was light-skinned, leading many to believe that his father was White.  She left New York in 1958 because finding and keeping work was difficult because of her participation in the Browder v Gayle case which overturned the bus segregation.  After her actions on the bus, she was was branded a troublemaker by many in her community.  She had to drop out of college and struggled in the local environment.

She and her son, Raymond lived with her sister in New York.  She got a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home in Manhattan and worked there for 35 years.  In 2004, she retired.  She had a second son who secured an education and became an accountant in Atlanta, where he married and had his own family.  His older brother, Raymond died in 1993 in New York from a heart attack at the age of 37.  Claudette never married.

In 2017, the Montgomery Council passed a resolution for a proclamation honoring Colvin.  March 2 was named Claudette Colvin day in Montgomery, Alabama. Mayor Todd Strange who presented the proclamation said of Colvin, “She was an early foot soldier in our civil rights, and we did not want this opportunity to go by without declaring March 2 as Claudette Colvin Day to thank her for her leadership in the modern day civil rights movement.”  Claudette could not attend the proclamation due to health concerns.

Councilman Larkin’s sister was on the bus in 1955 when Colvin was arrested. A few years ago, Larkin arranged for a streetcar to be named after Colvin.  According to her sister, Gloria Laster, “Had it not been for Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith there may not have been a Thurgood Marshall, a Martin Luther King or a Rosa Parks.”

Notes to Women celebrates this unsung heroine who didn’t get the recognition she deserved for being instrumental in the fight against the Montgomery bus segregation by refusing to get up from her seat which she believed was a violation of her constitutional right.

“I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on.”

“I’m not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation.”

“Whenever people ask me: ‘Why didn’t you get up when the bus driver asked you?’ I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail.”

 

Sources:  Wikipedia; BBC News

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

She changed the face of medicine

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

It was being raised by a kind aunt who spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors and her desire to relieve the suffering of others which led Rebecca Lee Crumpler down the a career path that would earn her the distinction of being the first African American woman physician in the United States.   In doing so, she rose to and overcame the challenge which prevented African Americans from pursuing careers in medicine.

Rebecca, a bright girl, attended the West-Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts, a prestigious private school as a “special student”.  In 1852 she moved to Charleston, Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse.  In 1860, she took a leap of faith and applied to medical school and was accepted into the New England Female Medical College.

The college was founded by Drs. Israel Tisdale Talbot and Samuel Gregory in 1848 and in 1852,  accepted its first class of women, 12 in number.  However, Rebecca proved that their assertions were false when, in 1864, she earned the distinction being the first African American woman to earn an M.D. degree and  the college’s only African American graduate.  The college closed in 1873.

In 1864, a year after her first husband, Wyatt Lee died, Rebecca married her second husband, Arthur Crumpler.   She began a medical practice in Boston.   In 1865, after the Civil War ended, the couple moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she found “the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”  She joined other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise would not have access to medical care.  She worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau, missionary and community groups in the face of intense racism which many black physicians experienced while working in the postwar South.

Racism, rude behavior and sexism didn’t diminish Rebecca’s zeal and valiant efforts to treat a “very large number of the indigent and others of different classes in a population of over 30,000 colored”.  She declared that “at the close of my services in that city, I returned to my former home, Boston where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment, regardless, in measure, of remuneration.”

The couple lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Beacon Hill where she practiced medicine.  In 1880, she and her husband moved to Hyde Park.  It was believed that at that time she was no longer in active practice but she did write a “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts”,  the first medical publication by an African American.  The book consisted of two parts.  The first part focused on “treating the cause, prevention, and cure of infantile bowel complaints, from birth to the close of the teething period, or after the fifth year.” The second section contained “miscellaneous information concerning the life and growth of beings; the beginning of womanhood; also, the cause, prevention, and cure of many of the most distressing complaints of women, and youth of both sexes.”

Rebecca Lee Crumpler died in Hyde Park on March 9, 1895.  Notes to Women wishes to celebrate this brave woman who had the tenacity to pursue a career in medicine, proving that women can change the face of a field which many wanted to bar her from because of color and gender.  Her passion to help alleviate the suffering of others was what led her to take this path.  Her courage and perseverance in the face of racism, sexism paved the way for many, not only African Americans and women but for those who like her, will seek every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s story is a reminder to all of us that we should never let anything or anyone prevent us from pursuing our dreams.

Selfish prudence is too often allowed to come between duty and human life – Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Sources:  Changing the Face of Medicine; PBS

Alice Ball

Alice Ball was the pharmaceutical chemist who developed a medical treatment for Leprosy, giving hope to millions.  Leprosy is a dreaded disease.  It has been around since biblical times.  It is disfiguring and it filled its sufferers with hopelessness.  In the US people with Leprosy were forcibly removed from their homes and detained indefinitely in remote colonies.  Thanks to Alice’s treatment, many of them were released from the detention centres and allowed to go home to their families.

Alice was born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington to Laura and James P. Ball Jr.  She was the grand-daughter of J.P. Ball, the famous daguerreotype photographer.  Alice attended the University of Washington and graduated with two degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and pharmacy in 1914.  In the fall of 1914 she attended the College (later the University) of Hawaii as a graduate student in chemistry.  On June 1, 1915, she became the first African American and the first woman to graduate with a Master of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii.  She was also the first woman to teach chemistry at the institution.

Impressed with her chemistry work, US Public Health Officer, Dr. Harry Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii asked Alice to help him to develop a method to isolate the active chemical compounds in chaulmoogra oil.   For centuries, Indian and Chinese health practitioners had limited success in using the oil to treat Leprosy.  The oil could be applied topically but it wouldn’t be able to penetrate deep enough into the body and as a result, people with the disease had some relief but the injections were difficult and patients described them as “burning like fire through the skin”.  Through her research, Alice found a successful treatment for those suffering from the disease.   She created the first water soluble injectable treatment, something that researchers had been unable to do.

Sadly, she didn’t live to see her treatment being used.  During her research, Alice had become ill.  When she returned to Seattle, she died at the age of 24.  The cause of her death is unknown although it is speculated that she inhaled chlorine gas during her teaching lab work.

Dr. Arthur L. Dean, the chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Hawaii continued the research, refining it and using it to successfully treat many patients at Kalaupapa, a special hospital for Hansen disease patients.  Dean published the findings without giving any credit to Ball, and renamed the technique the Dean Method, until Hollmann spoke out about this.  He went on record saying, “After a great amount of experimental work, Miss Ball solved the problem for me…(this preparation is known as)….the Ball Method.”

The “Ball Method” continued to be the most effective method of treatment for Leprosy until the 1940s when a cure for the disease was found.  Yet, as recent as 1999, a medical journal noted that the “Ball Method” was still being used to treat patients in remote areas.  In 2000, the University of Hawaii acknowledged Alice as one of its most distinguished graduates after researchers, notably Stanley Ali and Kathryn Takara.  They discovered in the archives the critical contribution Alice had made.   Alice was honoured with a Chaulmoogra tree planted on the campus and the Governor of Hawaii declaring February 29th Alice Ball Day.  She also received the University’s Medal of distinction.

Notes to Women is proud to celebrate and recognize Alice Ball whose research and ground-breaking scientific achievements went unnoticed by the University of Hawaii for almost a decade.  We honour this remarkable young woman who departed from the world too soon.  She left behind a legacy of hope for those who suffered from Leprosy by starting the fight against the disease and inspiring others to relentlessly hunt for more treatments until they found a cure.

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Alice Ball2

Sources:  Women Rock Science; Black Past; Wikipedia; Clutch Mag Online

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave who became a leading abolitionist.  She led hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Notes to Women salute this brave woman who suffered hardship and physical violence. When she crossed into the free state of Pennsylvania, she was overwhelmed with relief and awe.  Of this experience, she said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

This taste of freedom was something that she wanted others to experience.   So, instead of staying there in the North where it was safe, she made it her mission to rescue her family and others who were still living in slavery.  She earned the nickname “Moses” for leading others to freedom.

Harriet made history as the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, guiding the Combahee River Raid which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.   She was named one of the most famous civilians in American History before the Civil War, third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. Today, she continues to be an inspiration to generations of Americans who are still struggling for civil rights.

I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.

I would fight for my liberty so long as my strength lasted, and if the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.

I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.

I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.

I said to de Lord, ‘I’m goin’ to hold steady on to you, an’ I know you’ll see me through.’

Twasn’t me, ’twas the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ an’ He always did.

 

Sources:  Biography; Brainy Quote

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was one of 13 children to Susan and George Coleman, sharecroppers.  The family lived in a one-room cabin in Atlanta, Texas.  When she was two years old, Bessie’s father left the family in search of better opportunities in Oklahoma.  Bessie’s mother did her best to support the family until the children were old enough to contribute.  When Bessie’s older brothers went to work, she took care of her two younger sisters.  She became the family leader, reading to her sisters and mother at night.  Bessie promised her mother that she was going to “amount to something.”

Bessie began attending school when she was six and had to walk four miles every day to her segregated one-room school.  There she loved to read and had the distinction as an outstanding Math student.  The school closed whenever the students were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton.

Bessie attended Langston University, known then as Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University.  She was able to complete one term before she ran out of money.  She returned home.  At 23 she moved to Chicago where she lived with her brothers.  It was when she was working at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist that her interest in aviation was kindled.  She heard stories about flying during the war from pilots returning home from World War I.  American flight schools did not admit black women and one of the pilots was willing to teach her how to fly.

Determined to earn her pilot license and encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, Bessie went to France after taking a French language course at Berlitz School in Chicago.  In France, she learned how to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane and on June 15, 1921 she became the first African American and Native American to earn both an aviation pilot’s license and an international license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.  For the next two months, Bessie took lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris to polish her skills.  When she returned to the United States she became a media sensation.

She specialized in stunt flying and parachuting.  She earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks.  In 1922 she made her first appearance in an American airshow.  It was an event honoring veterans of an all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I.  She was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”

It was Bessie’s dream to establish a school for young black aviators but she didn’t live to fulfill it.  On April 30, 1926, Bessie was killed in an accident while preparing for an airshow.  She was only 34 years old.

Bessie Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.  “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers.  We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”  Lieutenant Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I and pushed for black aviation in his book, journals and through the Bessie Coleman Aero Club which he founded in 1929.

Notes to Women is pleased to honor this remarkable woman who broke down gender and race barriers by daring to dream big.  She kept her promise to her mother.  She did “amount to something”.

The air is the only place free from prejudice.

I refused to take no for an answer.

You’ve never lived till you’ve flown!

I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.

 

Bessie Coleman painting

Sources:  Biography; Notable Biographies; Wikipedia; Brainy Quote

Sojourner Truth

Empowered by her religious faith, the former slave worked tirelessly for many years to transform national attitudes and institutions. According to Nell Painter, Princeton professor and Truth biographer, “No other woman who had gone through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term.”
(Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, page 4)

In celebration of Black History Month, Notes to Women salutes Sojourner Truth, a devout Christian, abolitionist and Women’s Rights activist.  She was reputed to be the most famous African American woman in America in the 19th century.

For over forty years she traveled around the country, passionately and forcefully speaking for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and suffrage, the rights of freedmen, temperance, prison reform and the termination of capital punishment.  She changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth, a seeker after truth, becoming a traveling itinerant preacher so that she could tell the truth and crusade against injustice.  She was not intimidated by convention or authority.  She was known for her sense of humour which she used to squash self-righteousness.  She once derided some of the women social activists who wore frivolous clothing, saying to them, “What kind of reformers be you, with goose-wings on your heads, as if you were going to fly, and dressed in such ridiculous fashion, talking about reform and women’s rights?” (Narrative, Book of Life, p.243).

She made her most famous address, Ain’t I a Woman at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio where she asserted that women deserved equal rights with men because they were as equally as capable as men.  She testified, “I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and moved, and can any man do more than that?”  She concluded her speech saying, “And how came Jesus into the world?  Through God who created Him and the woman who bore Him.  Man, where was your part?” (Anti-Slavery Bugle, June, 1851).

Watch this video of this remarkable woman.

We celebrate the “world’s oldest lecturer” who, as a woman of faith could not keep silent when those created in God’s image were denied their human rights and equality.  Her memory lives on in the many local memorials and tributes established in her honor in Battle Creek.  In 1997, a year long celebration marked the 200th anniversary of Sojourner’s birth.  One day was not enough to celebrate this special lady.  She has left behind a legacy survival, strength, courage and the passion to transform attitudes and and institutions.  She inspires us to speak out against injustice, inequality and oppression and to stand up for truth and to act instead of talk.

If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.

Truth is powerful and it prevails.

Religion without humanity is very poor human stuff.

“Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?” (Sabbath School Convention, Battle Creek, June 1863)

Sources: YouTube;  Sojourner Truth; Brainy Quotes

 

 

 

 

Irene Morgan

Before Rosa Parks, there was Irene Morgan.

One muggy July morning in 1944, Irene Morgan, a young Seventh-day Adventist woman boarded a bus to Baltimore for a check-up following a miscarriage. About an hour or so out of Gloucester, a white couple boarded. The bus driver ordered Morgan and her seatmate to move. Morgan refused and prevented the woman next to her from giving up her seat, telling her to stay put. The woman was holding a baby. Faced with two passengers who refused to be intimidated the driver headed to the county jail.

A sheriff’s deputy came on board with a warrant for Morgan’s arrest. Morgan ripped the warrant and threw it out of the window, declaring that she hadn’t done anything wrong. The deputy grabbed her by the arm to pull her off the bus. Morgan kicked him in a very bad place because he had dared to touch her. Another deputy boarded the bus and was trying to put his hands on her to drag her off but she clawed at him, ripping his shirt. He threatened to use his nightstick, but that didn’t scare Morgan. She retorted, “We’ll whip each other.”

Morgan was fighting back because like the other passengers, she had paid her money and was sitting where she was supposed to sit. She wasn’t going to take this kind of treatment from anyone. She was dragged off the bus and thrown in jail. Her mother arrived an hour later and posted a hefty $500 bail to get her out of jail.

Morgan went to court where she pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100 but she refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law. Her attorney argued that segregation laws unfairly impeded interstate commerce. He purposely did not make the moral argument that segregation laws were unfair under the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection. His reasoning was that the Supreme Court wasn’t ready to take that argument. The case was significant in that what he and the defence were trying to do was break down segregation. Morgan was found guilty and fined $10.

Her arrest and $10 fine were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. Thurgood Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court justice. He was also the main lawyer in the case of Brown vs The Board of Education. His appeal resulted in a landmark 1946 decision striking down Jim Crow segregation in interstate transportation. She inspired the first Freedom Ride in 1947, when 16 civil rights activists rode buses and trains through the South to test the law enunciated in Morgan v. Virginia. However, although the case was front-page news and Greyhound immediately ordered its drivers not to enforce segregation, change did not come overnight.

Morgan never heard the appeals argued on her behalf by the two NAACP lawyers: Marshall and William Hastie, the dean of Howard Law School, which was at the center of the civil rights struggle.

Morgan finally got the recognition that had eluded her for so long although that is not what she was after. Her friends and family say that her whole life was about doing right and good. Over the past five decades, Morgan has led a quiet but extraordinary life. For many years she ran her own business. She won a scholarship in a radio contest. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. She was awarded a master’s degree in Urban Studies at the age of 73.

She has continued to inspire her family. In Baltimore, she passed out petitions demanding an end to school segregation without letting anyone know who she was. She wrote to the Pope seeking his intervention in the case of a Haitian whose children had been barred from parochial school. She rescued a neighbourhood boy from a burning building. Every Thanksgiving she invites two homeless residents over for dinner and laundry.

Irene Morgan was a freedom fighter a nation nearly forgot but her story is a testimony of how God chose to use a young mother to shape the history of blacks in America. She was a woman who fought to right a wrong. She was a woman who said no to segregation, which in the South of 1944 was a bold and dangerous thing to do. She had defied the law because it was unjust. She was a woman who was fighting for her religious rights because in Christ there was no distinction between the races. She was fighting for her human rights because she was an upstanding citizen who was paying for a public service like everybody else and who deserved to be treated with dignity.

Like David, Irene Morgan faced her Goliath—the system. And like Moses, she delivered her people from bondage—segregation.

As Irene Morgan faced the ugliness of bigotry, one can almost imagine these words going through her mind, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch out Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, And Your right hand will save me” (Psalm 138:7)

Irene Morgan remains a private woman, reserved and modest in an age when neither attribute is valued much. When Howard University wanted to award her an honorary doctorate, she declined, saying, “Oh, no, I didn’t earn it.”

The town where she had got on the bus was to honour her with a day called “A Homecoming for Irene Morgan”. Four scholarships were  to be established in her name.

In 2000 Morgan, who by then was in her 80s, was honored by Gloucester County, Virginia during its 350th anniversary celebration. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.

Morgan died on August 10, 2007, in Gloucester County at her daughter’s home. She was 90 years old.  Today we celebrate this woman who was an important predecessor to Rosa Parks in the successful fight to overturn segregation laws in the United States (Wikipedia).

“When something’s wrong, it’s wrong. It needs to be corrected.”

Irene Morgan