As with Black History Month, the focus on already well-known figures has been an ongoing criticism of Woman’s History Month. When it comes to black women, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks are on repeat. What makes these much-needed theme months thrive, however, is the spirit of discovery. It’s doubtful that the names Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, Callie House, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or Johnnie Tillmon even draw a glint of recognition but they should. In their own ways, each of these women made important contributions to the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice.
Even as a slave, Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett most of her life, had the audacity to sue for her freedom. Born into slavery in Claverack, New York around 1742, Freeman, at a reported six months old, was sold, along with her sister, to John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, a judge in the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas. Enslaved to Ashley until she was almost 40, Freeman was spurred to action when the mistress of the house Hannah Ashley tried to hit her sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Freeman intervened and was hit instead, leaving the house, vowing to never come back.
Aware of the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution and its declaration of all men being free and equal from Sheffield’s many conversations, Freeman sought the services of Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney with anti-slavery sentiments. In 1781, a Massachusetts court awarded Freeman and another of Ashley’s slaves named Brom their freedom in Brom and Bett v. J. Ashley, Esq., even requiring Ashley to pay damages.
This set a major civil rights precedent. W.E.B. DuBois even claimed Freeman, who adopted the name after her legal victory, as his maternal great-grandmother – even though this connection was by marriage – as she was such an important figure to him. Freeman passed away in 1829.
Born into privilege in Boston in 1842, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin used her education and background to uplift black women. Married at age sixteen to George Lewis Ruffin (who would later become Harvard Law School’s first black male graduate, the first African-American elected to the Massachusetts state legislature and to the Boston City Council, and the first African-American municipal judge in Boston), Ruffin, a suffragist, helped Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone form the American Woman Suffrage Association in Boston in 1869. After her husband’s death in 1884, Ruffin, also a journalist and early member of the New England Women’s Press Association, became even more active, launching Women’s Era, believed to be the nation’s first newspaper published by and for black women, serving as editor and publisher from 1890 to 1897.
With her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and Boston principal, Maria Baldwin, she launched the New Era Club for black women in either 1893 or 1894 depending on the source. In 1895, Ruffin helped organize the National Federation of Afro-American Women, convening its first national conference in Boston attended by 100 women representing 20 clubs in 10 states. A year later, in 1896, the organization merged with the Colored Women’s League to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Although a member of several white women’s clubs, Ruffin advocated for black women as a suffragist. She rejected recognition as a delegate at a major conference in 1900, for example, because organizers only sought to confer the role due to her membership in several prominent white women’s clubs. Instead, Ruffin chose to stand up for the validity of black women’s clubs like her own New Era.
Active in other areas, Ruffin was also a founding member of the Boston branch of the NAACP. She passed away in 1924 at age 81.
Callie House, born Callie Guy in slaveholding Rutherford County, Tennessee in 1861, is still relatively unknown, despite the book about her lifeMy Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry. But House, a laundress operating out of Nashville in the 1890s, is an important figure in the reparations movement.
In 1894, House, along with Isaiah Dickerson, who had worked with white political activist William Vaughn around reparations in Omaha, Nebraska, organized the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association. Open to all, the Ex-Slave Pension Association, working nationally and locally, filled the void of the Freedmen’s Bureau, providing burial services as well as care for the sick and disabled to its membership in addition to advocating for legislation for ex-slave pensions.
Because of her success, House became a target. In 1899, the U.S. Post Office, emboldened by theComstock Act of 1873, issued a fraud order against House and the Ex-Slave Pension Association. Continued federal intimidation forced House to step down as assistant secretary of the Ex-Slave Pension Association in 1902 but did not stop her from organizing more local chapters throughout the South. The wind left her sail, however, when Alabama Congressman Edmund Petus’s reparations legislation failed in 1903.
Pressing on, however, House worked with attorney Cornelius Jones and sued the Treasury Department for just over $68 million in cotton taxes tied to slave labor in Texas, but the case they filed in 1915 was ultimately dismissed. In 1916, House and other Ex-Slave Pension Association officers were indicted for allegedly using the postal service to defraud ex-slaves by promising that pensions and reparations were forthcoming. Convicted by an all-white, all-male jury, House was sentenced to a year and one day which she served in a Missouri penitentiary from November 1917 to August 1918, obtaining an early release for good behavior. Returning to Nashville as a laundress, House died ten years later, but her pioneering and early contributions to the reparations movement should not be forgotten.
Born the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper in 1926, Johnnie Tillmon never let lack stop her. Leaving her first husband in Arkansas for California, with her children in tow, Tillmon, who did not have a high school education, found herself on welfare where she learned first-hand of indignities — such as welfare inspectors rummaging through refrigerators and showing up at midnight to catch male company — that women suffered. Through anonymous letters, Tillmon organized more than 300 of her Watts housing project neighbors in protest in 1963, leading to the formation of the Aid to Needy Children-Mothers Anonymous shortly thereafter, which later inspired the creation of the National Welfare Rights Organization—an organization that one-time boasted over 25,000 members, mostly black women. Tillmon Blackston served as Executive Director starting in 1972 until the organization’s demise in 1974.
Tillmon injected the particular rights and concerns of poor black women into the national feminist and civil rights dialogue. In the pivotal essay “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” published in Ms. magazine in 1972, Tillmon argued that because 99 percent of families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children were headed by women, welfare was indeed a women’s issue. In addition, she brought attention to issues of birth control and the sterilization of poor black women, as well as the economic exploitation of poorly educated women. She even called then-California Governor Ronald Reagan out for referring to welfare recipients as “lazy parasites.”
In a time when it was posh to bash the so-called black welfare queen, Tillmon, who passed away in 1995 at age 69, pushed back, dedicating her life in various capacities to bringing much-needed awareness to the struggles of poor black women.
Tillmon’s contributions, as well as those of Elizabeth Freeman, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Callie House, may be unsung today — but there is no denying that each of these women played more than their part in uplifting their race and their gender, as well as in elevating the moral standard by which all human beings cooperating in a humane society should be measured.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha