Filling in the Pieces of Black Women's History
By Julia Joseph '21
Throughout centuries, the art, inventions, and cultural contributions of black women have been altered or completely erased due to a lack of records or a gross whitewashing of history. Here are some influential black women whose names and achievements you may not yet know.
Although Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony are often accredited as the leaders of the suffragist movement, the truth is that these women arrived on the scene years after black women had already been simultaneously fighting both the patriarchy and white supremacy. Maria W. Stewart, a black woman born in 1803, was one of the very first women to speak publicly in the US at a time when the public speaking of a woman, let alone a black woman, was considered crude and improper. Stewart passionately called for changes regarding slavery and oppression, ultimately influencing Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She urged black women to demand education, political rights, and to never forget their white oppressors. Later in life, Stewart taught at a black female literary society in New York before moving to Washington D.C. and being appointed matron of the Freedman's Hospital.
Maria W. Stewart
You may already be familiar with the adorably recognizable cartoon character Betty Boop. You may not be as familiar with black performer Esther Lee Jones (Baby Esther), the woman whose high-pitched voice, hairstyle, and performance mannerisms inspired Boop's character design. Although white performer Helen Kane had attempted to sue the creators of Betty Boop for plagiarizing her performances, the truth revealed that Kane had in fact copied Esther Lee Jones's style, down to her famous "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo" scat riffs. Although Kane lost her case, Jones was presumed dead before the end of the trial and she and her family were never compensated.
Esther Lee Jones, "Baby Esther"
Who do you think invented Rock n' Roll? If you said queer black performer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, you'd be right. Tharpe recorded her first four sides in 1938 before skyrocketing to fame and being applauded by Billboard magazine just four years later for her participation of the re-recording of "Rock Me" with the Lucky Millander Orchestra. Throughout Tharpe's life, she played packed stadiums and was exalted by critics for her stage presence and prodigious musical skill. In her late 40s, she played alongside gospel singer and pianist Marie Knight, and the two became lovers as well as professional partners. Their relationship ended when Knight's mother and children tragically died in a fire. The pair would, however, occasionally reunite and perform together throughout the 1950s. In 1957, Tharpe began touring Europe and bringing gospel and blues music to audiences who had previously been unexposed. Through her work, Sister Rosetta Tharpe openly inspired artists such as Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and even Elvis Presley, who is often erroneously accredited for inventing rock music. Readers should note that Elvis was a mere three years old when Tharpe recorded her first two hits, "Rock Me" and "That's All."
Sister Rosetta Tharpe