silent parade

Five You Should Know: Organizing for Change

As we begin Women’s History Month, we are excited to highlight the efforts and the abilities of African American women. African American women have made tremendous contributions toward the freedom, equality and thriving culture of African American communities. However, these stories are often historically lost to us or overlooked within the American story.

The women here represent a continual pursuit of equality through organizing, led by African American women. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and join us in sharing #HiddenHerstory during the month of March. 

1. Hallie Quinn Brown

Photo: Photo from Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, edited by Hallie Quinn Brown, 1926. 

Hallie Quinn Brown (1849-1949) helped organize the Colored Women’s League in Washington, D.C., one of the organizations that merged in 1896 to become the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She served as president of the NACW, from 1920 to 1924. Brown is among many other notable founders of the NACW, to include Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells.

Brown also served as President of the Ohio State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs between 1905 and 1912. During her last year as president of the NACW, she spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Brown had a reputation as a powerful orator. In 1899, while serving as a U.S. representative, she spoke before the International Congress of Women meeting in London, UK on women’s suffrage and civil rights.

2. Madam C.J. Walker

Photo: From Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, edited by Hallie Quinn Brown, 1926. 

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) is widely known for her successful beauty and haircare business, produced by her Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. However, Walker’s life also includes a long history of activism and philanthropy toward racial equality and civil rights. During World War I, Walker was a leader in the Circle For Negro War Relief, in the effort to establish a training camp for black army officers. In 1917, she joined the executive committee of the New York chapter of the NAACP, which organized the Silent Protest Parade on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. More than 8,000 African Americans participated in protest of a riot in East Saint Louis that killed thirty-nine African Americans.

Walker was also a supporter of Marcus Garvey, donating to the mission of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). She was joined by Garvey and others when she founded The International League for Darker People in 1919 in the U.S. The organization aimed to bring together African Americans with other non-European people to pursue shared goals at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I. In particular, the organization made connections between Asian and black communities and for solidarity within their liberation movements. Walker’s life of activism is a reflection of her desire for global equality.

3. Barbara Smith

Photo: Portrait of Barbara Smith.

In 1973, author and lesbian feminist Barbara Smith, with other delegates, attended the first regional meeting of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973 in New York City. This meeting resulted in the founding of the Combahee River Collective. The Collective’s name was suggested by Smith, who owned the book, Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Earl Conrad. The name commemorated an action at the Combahee River planned and led by Harriet Tubman on June 2, 1863, in the Port Royal region of South Carolina. The action freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman. The Combahee River Collective emphasized the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class oppression in the lives of African American women and other non-white women.

Smith also established the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980, an activist feminist press that published several pamphlets and books. Many of these works became widely influential and adopted into many courses of study. Smith continued her work as a community organizer, when she was elected to the Albany, New York city council in 2005. She was an advocate for violence prevention, and educational opportunities for poor, minority and underserved people. Smith continues to be activist for economic, racial and social inequality.

4. Marsha P. Johnson

PhotoMarsha P. Johnson Black & white version of Andy Warhol Polaroid.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992), a drag queen and gay liberation activist, is known as one of the first to fight back in the  Stonewall riots, a series of violent demonstrations among the LGBT against police raids. In the 1970s, Johnson and a friend, Sylvia Rivera, cofounded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that promoted the visibility of the gay community, particularly through gay liberation marches and other political actions. The organization also worked to provide food and clothing for young drag queens, trans women and other kids living in the streets in the Lower East Side of New York. In the 1980s, she continued her street activism as a, organizer and with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). 

5. Charlene Carruthers

Photo: Charlene Carruthers, Photo Courtesy of BYP100 Project.

Charlene Carruthers is a black queer feminist activist and organizer. In July 2013, Carruthers with 100 other black activist leaders from across the U.S. were assembled by the Black Youth Project in Chicago for a meeting. The meeting convened with the goal of building networks of organization for black youth activism across the country. However, it was the verdict of George Zimmerman regarding the death of Trayvon Martin, that inspired Carruthers and the other activists to form Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100). The group was created to organize and promote young black activism in resistance to structural forms of  oppression. BYP100 trains youth to be leaders, to empower a younger generation of black activist. 

As I was about to enter the gate, the mother of a classmate of mine called out to me. She asked whether they were holding our class at the school that day, or at a nearby temple as they sometimes did. They were always switching locations because some schools had been bombed in the air raids. I told her I didn’t know; she’d have to ask the teacher. I was standing right in front of the gate, and the lady was standing about a meter in front of me. Just then we saw a single plane fly overhead. “That’s a B-29!” I said. “Yes, so it is,” she answered. But there was no air-raid siren, like there usually was. The lady said that was really strange. Then, just at that moment, there was a huge flash. It seemed to rush at me. I remember the center was pure white, with blue-white around it and orange-red around that. I saw that flash for an instant, and after that I don’t remember anything.

The next thing I remember, it was pitch dark. It seemed like night. But a moment ago, there had been blue sky overhead. I felt something jabbed in my cheek, a nail — I still have the scar, see? I wondered what had happened. When I tried to get up I found I was under a pile of tiles and boards. The wall of the school had collapsed behind me. I crawled out from under it. In front of me, I saw the lady I’d just been talking to, but now she was lying out in the street. Her hair was all burned, her face and skin were black, and she was staring straight at me.

I went out into the street. It was a wide avenue with a streetcar track running down the middle. On both sides all the houses were collapsed, and the streetcar wires overhead were all twisted around like spider webs. I guess a homing instinct kicked in then. I wasn’t thinking anything except that I had to get home. I ran down the street. As I ran, the first people I met were five or six women walking along in only their underpants. They had all this glass sticking straight out of them, but on different sides — some on their left side, some in front, some on the right, some only on their backs. They’d been struck by glass from shattered windows. Then I saw people who looked like their bodies were colored blue. When you got closer, you realized they were completely covered with glass shards. Farther along I came to a place where people were lying along the roadside, like a human carpet. Their skin was burned completely black. Other people were crawling across the road to drink from a water pump on the other side. I kept going. I just couldn’t understand what had happened. What was really strange was that nobody cried out. Some were silently drinking water as fast as they could; others were sitting there picking the glass out of their bodies.

There were throngs of people walking silently along, like a parade of ghosts. Their skin was all in strips. The heat from the A-bomb reaches around 5,000 or 6,000 degrees, you know; it melts the skin right off you in an instant. But human skin is pretty amazing stuff. It strips right off you all the way down to your fingernails, and just hangs there. So people were walking along with their hands out in front of them, the skin from their arms dragging on the ground. Just like a bunch of ghosts. When the blast from the bomb hit people in the face, their eyeballs would pop out and dangle from their sockets. So people were staggering along supporting their eyeballs in their hands. If the blast hit you in the belly, it would split you open, so some people had their intestines spilling out and were trying to stuff them back in.

Another thing I noticed was that people wearing white clothing had those clothes on intact. But the rest of them was completely burned. Later I learned that the heat of the blast behaved like light hitting a mirror. It reflected off white clothes but was absorbed by dark clothes. Unfortunately, most people at this point in the war were in the habit of wearing dark clothes so they wouldn’t be visible to enemy planes at night.

So I was running through this scene, calling out for my mother and father. Miraculously, a neighbor lady recognized me. She was standing there, covered with glass, pressing her body to try to stop the bleeding. She told me my mother was by the streetcar tracks near a certain intersection. I didn’t think; I just ran. When I got to the intersection, I found my mother sitting on a futon she’d laid out by the side of the street. She was just sitting there staring blankly. I remember we just kept looking at each other; we didn’t have the energy to talk. Then I noticed she was holding something in her arms. It was a baby. The shock of the bombing had hastened the birth. …It was a girl.

We just sat there staring at the ghost parade as it streamed by. People were fleeing the epicenter. We were a little ways outside of town. There were vegetable fields on both sides of the road around us, completely covered with bodies. People would collapse on top of the vegetables. It felt cool to their burned bodies, I guess.

At some point black rain started to fall on us. It had the consistency of heavy oil. No one knew what it was. Somebody said the Americans must be dropping oil on Hiroshima to make the fire spread. But we were very lucky. If we’d fled west, we would have been exposed to the full brunt of the black rain and would have died from the radioactivity. But we’d gone south, and only a few drops fell on us. To the west, so many people died of acute radiation sickness or later of leukemia. So we spent the rest of the day just sitting there. Then, at night, people all around us started moaning for water. We couldn’t sleep. My mother took pity on them and went to the pump to get water for them. They’d grab the bucket, drink the water down as fast as they could, and then, in a matter of seconds, they’d fall over — dead. Maybe it was a shock to their system or maybe they’d been hanging on for dear life, just craving water, so when they finally got some, they could let go and die.

—  Keiji Nakazawa, Japanese author and native of Hiroshima; he was six years old on August 6, 1945.