As Black women, we are either erased, or accepted within a context of respectability politics. Within this current landscape, Black women are reminded of all of the ways this country is not for them.
Still, the foundation has all the fingerprints of our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and many who hold these titles as a part of our extended families. Our ancestors laid the foundation of the place we call America.
Looking back isn’t always about the pain, or what has happened to us. For me, looking back is about summoning the strength—especially within this current moment. It’s about being reminded of who I am beyond what media and pop culture will try to tell me about who I am.
These are the Black women who are not always included in the history books or within these commemorative months. These entrepreneurs, self-stylers and rebels were erased by history’s greatest hits, misrepresented or forgotten—yet they created a way when carving one’s path could mean their life or freedom.
For Henrietta Wood, freedom was literally at stake. In January 1871, the headline in Ohio’s The Vinton Record was, “A Free Woman Sold into Slavery Sues Her Kidnappers.” The words grab the reader’s attention with a stunning backstory. She gained her freedom in 1848, was tricked by her employer and sold into slavery in 1853. Wood’s story unfolds in old archived documents that illustrate a court battle in which Wood sued her kidnappers in Henrietta Wood v. Zebulan Ward for $20,000 in damages—and won.
Upon winning her case, Wood secured $2,500—equivalent to $65,000 today. She was able to provide a life for her and her son, using some to send him to law school. Wood continued to tell her own tale to many newspapers at the time. The story of Henrietta Wood lives in W. Caleb McDaniel’s 2019 book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution.
There are other rebels kept in the plain sight of recent scholarship. In 2019, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers shared the story of Winney. Winney knew that she was supposed to be free and did something about it. After the death of her owner in 1844—which was supposed to prompt her freedom, according to a document Winney knew about—Winney took the heirs to court and won her case. She became free.
Wood and Winney illustrate situations of Black women leveraging the law in the middle of the country. In other parts of the nation, there those who had to break the law in order to make a living. Lulu White and Willie Piazza were two women who colored outside of the lines as madams in what was known as Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans.
Here at Ms., our team is continuing to report through this global health crisis—doing what we can to keep you informed and up-to-date on some of the most underreported issues of this pandemic. We ask that you consider supporting our work to bring you substantive, unique reporting—we can’t do it without you. Support our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.
Sex workers are not recognized as prominent historical figures when it comes to paying our homage, and still, these women deserve space on the stage. Lulu White (1868-1931) called herself the “Diamond Queen of the Demi-Monde.” She ran her business out of Mahogany Hall. According to some sources, Lulu’s hall had about five parlors, 15 bedrooms and Tiffany stained-glass windows. It employed at least 40 Black women who were able to use the obsession with lighter skin to their advantage. It was built for approximately $1 million in current dollars.
Reading in the white space of newspaper clippings that talk about her arrests, having her jewels jacked and other moments like that, a different story emerges. Lulu was often in trouble for breaking the bounds of the law—like the 1907 Gay-Shattuck Act that had the stench of Jim Crow, prohibiting “blacks and whites from drinking in the same business.” This same law also prevented women from working in a place that served alcohol.
Willie Piazza (1865-1932)—known as the Countess of Storyville—created a business for herself the same way Lulu White did. She made enough money to purchase and renovate a 12,000 square foot space and paid her mortgage within two years of purchase.
Willie and Lulu also had something else in common: They leveraged their ambiguous appearance for the purposes of securing the same kind of powerful clientele that white women were trying to attract. They were both probably born in parts of the South, but because their lineage was unknown, they evaded categorization and reinvented their origin stories.
For both women, there was a harsh reality regarding the limited choice of employment that Black women had during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Within the environment of extreme racism that persisted, Piazza won her case—the City of New Orleans v. Willie Piazza—against the attempt to segregate the district, which would have prevented Black women from working in Storyville.
There are so many more Black women who don’t just speak beyond the graves, but demand our attention. The entrepreneur and philanthropist, Mary Ellen Pleasant, played a key role in civil rights cases on the West coast and may have provided financial support for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, in addition to her support of other enterprises. She was quick to correct anyone who wanted to call her by a known nickname, “mammy.”
Frances Ellen Watkins—journalist, abolitionist, writer—was one of many unknown Black suffragette women. In her 1866 speech at the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention, Watkins stated, “I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.” She was talking about discrimination within the suffragist movement regarding voting rights.
Playwright Alice Childress refused to bow to Broadway’s expectations within the plays she wrote. She would not adjust her language or subject matter, which dealt with the complexity of race.
We all are familiar with the image of Rosie the Riveter as an iconic image of women supporting the WWII effort, but the image overshadows the work of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The unit was unique in “being the only all-African American, all-female unit sent overseas.” Their work in keeping the mail going helped to boost the morale of millions of soldiers and their families.
These women and countless others are situated within the ancestral legacy of the voices of Black women. Within the special days we choose to commemorate and other moments in between, we need to do our work in asking ourselves: Who is missing from this picture? Who gets erased as we are pushing certain individuals forward?
Let’s think about all the ways Black women have often reminded us of what it means to carve one’s path, especially when it involves great risk.
And if you are a Black woman reading this, let’s remember that we belong to a legacy of many who raised their voices through their pens, actions, and entrepreneurial wit. They defied many to create a way forward.
They remind us of our voices, and the need to keep making them heard while defining ourselves on our own terms.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.