Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Words from 'Women of Courage'

Not long ago our roving browser ran into Ruth Hill at the New York Public Library. She was there as coordinator of the Black Women Oral History Project, preparing for ''Women of Courage,'' an exhibition of photographs by Judith Sedwick based upon the project. Could The Home Forum have a preview? Yes, and today, as the show opens, here is a sample of the photographs and of interviews with 72 older black women who have made ''substantial contributions to their professions or their communities.'' The oral history project was initiated in 1976 by the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass. The exhibition will remain in New York through February and then travel to Boston, Seattle, and elsewhere. (Words in italics are those of the interviewers.)

I must say that an artist who paints from feeling ofttimes changes style. For example, in Paris, I painted as an Impressionist, typical of the era. I was thrilled by the beautiful grays of the sky, the grays of the buildings, that sort of mysticism, that overcast of a silvery misty gray which is evident in my early paintings of the little narrow streets and the buildings.

About these ads

On the economic side of it, did your scholarship, you were on sabbatical, help to cover all of your expenses or did you have to rely on financial help from other sources?

No. It was a very healthy grant and as a matter of fact, I lived very well, and the studio which I had was very beautiful.

How did you get that?

I went to the American International Center and it just happened that two American artists were giving up the studio to go back to the States and they offered it to me. It was something that was just unbelievable, a Negro girl being offered this beautiful studio at Rue Compagne 1er, near the Jardin du Luxembourg - which had an upstairs balcony overlooking the downstairs area and then another terrace on the very top where I had a roof garden which looked all over Paris. Lois Mailou Jones - artist and teacher

You also showed me a buffalo nickel . . . tell me about the nickel.

When I went into the office to take dictation, I said, ''Dr. Carver (botanist George Washington Carver), I bought a couple of picture post cards of you and your gloriosa plant that Mr. Burrows has for sale in the drugstore. I wonder if you would autograph them for me so I can send one to my niece?'' He took the pictures, looked at them, and autographed them. He said, ''Mrs. Abbott, where did you get these?'' I said, ''I got them over at the drugstore, Mr. Burrows' store. He has them for sale there.'' He asked, ''How much did they cost?'' I replied, ''They were two for a nickel.'' He reached down into his pocket, pulled out his pocketbook and gave me my nickel back, and autographed both of the cards. I kept one card, and I still have it and the nickel among my souvenirs. Jessie Abbott - secretary at Tuskegee Institute

With Mrs. (Mary McLeod) Bethune, there were just no shortcuts, and another part of the character training, shall I call it, would be through these phrases that she would use, like ''Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability.'' Over and over, you would find, ''Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability.'' And so this feeling about the thoroughness - to this day, any kind of sloppiness disturbs me greatly. I think another contribution that I would say she made to my life was her attitude toward work. For instance, she would say, ''Any work is honest however humble,'' and ''In whatever you do, strive to be an artist.'' Wasn't that a concept? To have it drilled into you, that whatever you do, strive to be an artist. Lucy Miller Mitchell - specialist in early childhood education

About these ads

When I worked out for people, they always used to say they didn't have to tell me much because I understood what it was. All I had to know was the layout of the place and I'd go in and do it. The same thing everywhere. But I knew what I had to do. They didn't have to run around me saying, ''Do this now, do that now.'' If they tell you they want this done, you go right ahead and do it. I always had that kind of ability to do, and so I always could, as I say, always get work to do. I'd work for somebody and leave them. They'd be calling me up, asking me would I come back and would I do this and would I do that. So this showed you did know what you were doing. And that you were dependable and they could feel they had somebody who knew what they were doing. And that means a great deal. Melnea A. Cass - civic leader in Boston

We had a Japanese envoy to this country who lived on our block, and who had a little son whose name was Tatsu Kando. I don't know where Tatsu is now, he should be about my age or a little bit younger. But his father was the Japanese envoy to this country. And so you see, it was considered a nice neighborhood. Then we had some blacks who were moving in at that time, just a few back in the teens. And there was a white family who lived three doors from us, and they had a little boy named Arthur and he was my best friend in the block. We would walk to school together. I don't think we ever discussed it, but when we would see an adult coming, he would either get in front of me or behind me and we would walk like we didn't know each other till after this white adult had passed us, and then we would laugh and get back together again. As far as I know, we never discussed the racial matter. But we knew this would cause lifted eyebrows, questioning and everything, so in order to avoid that, we would play like we didn't know each other until after we had passed and then we'd get together and laugh about it. Alfreda Barnett Duster - social worker, daughter of Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Perhaps it's a truism to say that a secure childhood makes a happy adult. My childhood was a particularly happy one. My parents were fond of each other, and fond of us. They never talked down to us, but talked with us, and for the most part, we felt we could go to them with problems that we had. I remember one little incident which indicates how wise they were in dealing with us. My father had a little cupboard in which he kept wine and cookies, and my sister and I one day found it unlocked. So we went in and, childlike, not realizing that the consistent depletion of the cookies would somehow be discovered, found ourselves detected. Our parents who could have scolded us, or punished us, or spanked us, talked with us. I remember my father saying, ''What I have is yours. All you have to do is ask me for it. You don't ever have to take anything that way.'' We felt so chagrined, that that experience probably did much to cement what was already a very close relationship. Frances Olivia Grant - educator

You were mentioning taking in sewing to earn a little extra money . . . I always remember, on Easter Sunday, when we would get up sometimes, we would find we had a new dress, new Easter dress. (In this excerpt the interviewer, Ruth Hill, is talking with her mother.)

Well, talking about sewing, I might mention this, too. Your father had to hold down two jobs - this was after you children went to college - and the sewing more or less kept you in spending money. And I remember, I used to tell you never to let yourself go broke, you children, but always to call home and get money, 'cause we could get along without money better than you could in a strange place. But I was always afraid of the telephone bill, because I never knew what it was going to say (laughter). Because it was easier to call . . . I thought it was better to let 'em call and tell their problems, 'cause by the time they wrote and you answered, the problem, the occasion, was over. Florence Jacobs Edmonds - nurse and hospital administrator

Now, looking at me, you will not know, you cannot know, that the dream of my life has been to have a racehorse. Because my father bought a retired racehorse when he was a young man. . . . Before he was married to my mother he was a dandy , and he won a cake for doing the cakewalk. He always had sore feet, because when he was a young man, dressed up as a dandy in too tight shoes, his shoes were too tight, and he always limped a little bit. He used to tell us . . . the blue eyes! He used to tell us about Ned, and those blue eyes would be gleaming. He used to tell his children. . . . And I think it was then that I fell in love. I had to have a racehorse. I will never have a racehorse, but to this day, I love horses.

Dorothy West - author in Harlem Renaissance

I can certainly understand the pregnant girl. I can understand the widowed woman. I can understand the separated woman. I can understand the common- law woman. I can understand the happily married woman. I can understand them all, and I've been that, I've been every one of those groups. Sometimes I go to speak to groups, Parents Without Partners, and I say, ''Oh, I can well talk to you because I've been a parent without a partner.'' And so I look at each one of those experiences as a blessing, because I finally found a way to make it a blessing. And I think that one of the things we have to do with our life is know that each thing is a learning experience and, whether it's bad or good, always reach for something better; then you can achieve. Charleszetta Waddles - ordained minister

Thirty-two nationalities. We prided ourselves on this. You still had the Italian workers belonging to Local 89, which was the language local. Local 22 had been a language local, but they had discarded that years and years ago, so that everyone who was not Italian belonged to Local 22, the dressmakers.

Did the Italians still conduct their meetings in their own language at that late date?

Yes, it was the Italian local, Local 89.

They were the only one who still had their own language?

No, no, there were some others, but within our joint board, they were the only ones. You think of Luigi Antonini with his flowing black tie who looked like a great opera impresario, and it was he who brought to the garment workers, I think, the kind of cultural content, because any celebration it meant going to the opera. Or bringing the greatest of the opera stars to the garment workers, and when we had our celebration in Madison Square Garden after we won the general strike, everybody from the Met was there to sing for the workers.

No kidding?

And you had the great freedom song of the Italian workers, ''Pan y Rosa,'' ''Bread and Roses.''

Oh, that's nice.

So this is, that's why I say that for me the trade union movement was always a great love affair and a great excitement. Maida Springer Kemp - trade union executive

During the depression - I think that the depression was one of the best years I've known. That sounds funny, but the depression brought people together. If I wanted to have a community meeting, all I would do is send out a call that we're going to have a community meeting and we're going to talk about opening up certain projects for the black people. All of the community would come. We would meet with each other, converse with each other, and talk to each other. The same thing, sometimes, to get them together, we'd have a little party. Everybody would bring something to the party. We'd have a nice exchange of ideas and meeting people. We met neighbors we had never met before. Frances Albrier - civic leader in California

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.