Photos of 19th-Century Black Women Activists Digitized and Put Online by The Library of Congress

A cou­ple days ago, a visu­al­ly com­pelling thread on Twit­ter explod­ed with thou­sands of shares and likes and dozens of users sub­mit­ting their own con­tri­bu­tions. The thread (a series of con­nect­ed tweets for the Twit­ter unini­ti­at­ed) has become an evolv­ing pho­to essay of women activists stand­ing up to walls of mil­i­ta­rized riot police and mobs of angry big­ots. The pho­tos fea­ture sub­jects like Tess Asplund, Leshia Evans, and Saf­fiyah Khan, and his­tor­i­cal inspi­ra­tions like Glo­ria Richard­son and Bernadette Devlin. Many of the sub­jects are unknown or unnamed, but no less icon­ic. These images, from all over the world, of women stand­ing defi­ant­ly and often alone, against heav­i­ly armed and armored, most­ly male pow­er struc­tures inspire and, in the case of chil­dren like Ruby Bridges, can break your heart.

Pho­tos like these serve as pow­er­ful and nec­es­sary tes­ta­ments to the fact that in social move­ments through­out his­to­ry, women have held the front lines. And pho­tog­ra­phers have cap­tured their activist spir­it since the ear­ly days of the medi­um. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, long expo­sures and frag­ile, finicky equip­ment made action shots dif­fi­cult-to-impos­si­ble, and for a vari­ety of cul­tur­al rea­sons, many women were far less like­ly to con­front armed men on the streets. There­fore, the por­traits of women activists from the time tend toward tra­di­tion­al seat­ed pos­es. But as famous pho­tographs of Har­ri­et Tub­man and Sojourn­er Truth demon­strate, these images do not show us pas­sive observers of his­to­ry.

Pic­tures of Tub­man and Truth have made their way into every ele­men­tary school his­to­ry text­book. Far less well-known are the many oth­er African-Amer­i­can women activists of the late-nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies who fought for the rights of black Amer­i­cans in edu­ca­tion, at the vot­ing booth, and every­where else. Dur­ing Recon­struc­tion espe­cial­ly, many such activists rose to promi­nence in acad­e­mia, jour­nal­ism, and civic lead­er­ship. Women like Fan­nie Bar­ri­er Williams, at the top, whose wise, direct gaze illus­trates her fear­less­ness as an edu­ca­tion­al reformer and suf­frag­ist, who, despite her maid­en name, broke sev­er­al bar­ri­ers for black women in high­er edu­ca­tion and promi­nent pub­lic events like the 1893 Columbian Expo­si­tion. Against pater­nal­is­tic claims that for­mer slaves weren’t ready for cit­i­zen­ship, writes the Rochester Region­al Library Coun­cil, Williams “called on all women to unite and claim their inalien­able rights.”

Above, we see Lau­ra A. Moore West­brook. Of the first gen­er­a­tion to grow up after slav­ery, West­brook received a master’s degree in 1880, the only woman in a class of four. She went on to teach and fight fierce­ly for for­mer­ly enslaved stu­dents in Texas, earn­ing admi­ra­tion, as Mon­roe Alphus Majors wrote in 1893, “in con­spic­u­ous instances and under very flat­ter­ing cir­cum­stances” from con­tem­po­raries like Fred­er­ick Dou­glass. Majors’ char­ac­ter­i­za­tion will sound patron­iz­ing to our ears, but in the rigid terms of the time, it offers near­ly as vivid a por­trait as her pho­to­graph: “Her motive to do good far sur­pass­es her van­i­ty, except when her race is attacked, then, man­like, she with the pen strikes back, and even goes beyond her loy­al­ty to serve, but makes last­ing impres­sions upon those who are so unfor­tu­nate to get with­in her range.”

These images come from a Library of Con­gress archive of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry African Amer­i­can activists from the col­lec­tion of William Hen­ry Richards, a pro­fes­sor at Howard Uni­ver­si­ty Law School from 1890 to 1928 and a staunch cam­paign­er for civ­il rights and lib­er­ties. Most of the por­traits are of the for­mal, staged vari­ety, but we also have the more relaxed, even play­ful series of pos­es from activists Eliz­a­beth Brooks and Emma Hack­ley, above. Richards’ col­lec­tion, writes cura­tor Bev­er­ly Bran­non at the LoC site, includes many “peo­ple who joined him and oth­ers work­ing in the suf­frage and tem­per­ance move­ments and in edu­ca­tion, jour­nal­ism and the arts.” The pho­tographs “show the women at ear­li­er ages than most por­traits pre­vi­ous­ly avail­able of them online.”

These por­traits date from a time, notes Alli­son Meier at Hyper­al­ler­gic, when “rights and oppor­tu­ni­ties for African Amer­i­cans, espe­cial­ly women, remained severe­ly lim­it­ed.” Many “obscure black women writ­ers,” jour­nal­ists, and teach­ers “await their biog­ra­phers,”  argues Jonathan Daniel Wells, and per­haps the redis­cov­ery of these pho­tographs will prompt his­to­ri­ans to recon­sid­er their promi­nence. While they did not phys­i­cal­ly stand up to armed mobs or police bat­tal­ions, these activists, writes Meier, “spoke out bold­ly against gen­der inequal­i­ty, while at the same time remain­ing cog­nizant that espe­cial­ly in the so-called New South, racism, vio­lence and mur­der were ever-present dan­gers for African Amer­i­can women and men.”

Hyper­al­ler­gic/Library of Con­gress

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

W.E.B. Du Bois Cre­ates Rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Artis­tic Data Visu­al­iza­tions Show­ing the Eco­nom­ic Plight of African-Amer­i­cans (1900)

Watch the Pio­neer­ing Films of Oscar Micheaux, America’s First Great African-Amer­i­can Film­mak­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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