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Traveling exhibit showcases lives of black 'Women of Courage'

''My new friends? Maids, college professors, political leaders, glamorous entertainers, famed 'mothers.' You name them, I've made them during the past seven years.''

Ruth B. Hill has recorded the recollections of at least 71 ''dear'' friends, all black women, many of them with ties back to the age of slavery, many born before the 20th century.

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''They have become a vital part of my life,'' says Mrs. Hill, who is coordinator of a special Radcliffe College research study, the Black Women Oral History Project. It is one phase of an ongoing research project on the history of women in America by Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library. Before taking on the ''part-time'' assignment, Mrs. Hill says, she was full-time librarian of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

Mrs. Hill and the Schlesinger library have converted the oral history study into an exhibition, ''Women of Courage,'' which opened a two-year national tour Dec. 5 at the New York Public Library.

The exhibition showcases large photographs and cameo biographies of 71 black women - from centenarian Annie Mae Nipson of Clearfield, Pa., mother of six, domestic worker, and housewife for more than 50 years, to Ellen Jackson of Boston, born in 1935, who as a mother became an activist in the school desegregation movement and is now a dean at Northeastern University.

Two of the women featured in the exhibit are best known as ''Mother.'' Audley Moore of Harlem, born in the 19th century, had no more than a fourth-grade education but became a legendary civil rights activist.

Queen Mother Moore was a ''revolutionary'' who joined the Marcus Garvey ''back to Africa'' movement and demanded reparation for black people for their years of slavery. She was given the title ''Queen Mother'' by the Ashanti tribe in Ghana.

Charleszetta ''Mother'' Waddles of Detroit was married, a mother, and a widow by the age of 19 and later an unmarried welfare mother of six children. She is best known as founder of the Perpetual Mission for Saving Souls of All Nations, and for her ''one-woman war on poverty,'' explains Mrs. Hill.

''Our oral history mission took flight in 1981,'' Mrs. Hill says, when free-lance photographer Judith Sedwick ''offered her talents to the project.'' Ms. Sedwick took pictures of 10 women from the Boston and New York City areas, displaying them in February 1982 at the Schlesinger Library.

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''We were sold on her work,'' Mrs. Hill recalls. Schlesinger librarian Patricia King and Mrs. Hill conceived a pictoral display of the project.

''Of course, we needed more money to carry out our grandiose thoughts,'' Mrs. Hill says. And it was forthcoming - first in 1982 with a grant from Warner Communications. This enabled Ms. Sedwick to travel around the nation to complete her photographic task.

By last spring, supporters had been convinced they should support an exhibition to travel nationwide, says Mrs. Hill. A Ford Foundation grant made that possible.

Finally, the staff and the group's advisory committee wanted to make texts of the oral interviews to be available at other libraries. A Rockefeller Foundation award made this possible, says Mrs. Hill.

Funds also were donated by Links Inc., a national black women's civic organization, and the Mary McCants Stewart Foundation, established by the family of one of the featured women, Katherine Stewart Flippin of San Francisco. Mrs. Flippin was a high school dropout who returned to school to earn bachelor's and master's degrees 15 years later. She is a community activist in the field of child care. The exhibition will remain on display at the New York City Public Library through Feb. 28, 1985. There will be two special events during this stay.

On Dec. 13 New Yorkers will be able to meet two of the featured women: Dorothy West of Oak Bluffs, Mass., called the ''last of the Harlem Renaissance writers,'' and Olivia Pearl Stokes of the Bronx, New York, a native of North Carolina who is a teacher and preacher. The two women will appear on a panel moderated by Carol Gilkes of Boston University.

Mrs. Hill will moderate a second panel Feb. 7, 1985. Speakers will be Etta Moten Barnett of Chicago, featured in musicals of the 1930s and still a television performer in the Windy City, and Maida Springer Kemp of New York, a labor leader for nearly a half century.

During March the display will be showcased at the Boston Public Library. Other stops during 1985 and 1986 are being scheduled, Mrs. Hill says.

Original research tapes, transcriptions, and documentation of the interviews will remain in the Schlesinger Library, she explains. Copies of the originals will be deposited in oral history collections of Atlanta University, Columbia University, Fisk University, and Jackson State University, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University, the Schomburg Center in New York, the Frissell Library of Tuskegee Institute, and the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley.

Pictured on the cover of the exhibit's program is Eunice Laurie, who has spent her life in and around Tuskegee, Ala., serving rural black people as a county demonstration agent and public health worker.

''Oh, I can talk forever about these women,'' says Mrs. Hill.

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