- A Forgotten Sisterhood: Pioneering Black Women Educators and Activists in the Jim Crow South by Audrey Thomas McCluskey
Arguably the most instrumental and far-reaching reformers of the New South, dozens of African American women formed a “Southern Network” to lead efforts toward racial uplift through education (p. 11). Black female teachers epitomized the tenets and goals of social activism, working within a cultural and political system where they were thrice marginalized as African American, female, and non-elite. Audrey Thomas McCluskey makes a compelling case that four women led this cadre of black women educators to forge a “forgotten sisterhood” that deserves greater memorialization and historical recognition. She also argues that these women, Lucy Craft Laney (1854–1933), Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955), Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879–1961), and Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883–1961), were instrumental in the formation of a black middle class after Reconstruction.
The sources McCluskey has consulted are wide-ranging—from letters to interviews to published works, both primary and secondary. Chapter 1 serves as the introduction, providing excellent post–Civil War context. This historical [End Page 190] moment was seized by a generation of young educated black women who founded schools, established powerful organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, and worked with organizations such as the American Missionary Association and the National Baptist Convention. These four women were fund-raisers, advocates, and activists for their race as well as their gender. As administrators they pursued a hybrid of industrial and liberal arts education that reinforced white definitions of “female purity and domesticity,” while they also fought the oppressive injustice faced by African Americans (p. 8). McCluskey concludes, “Their activism was based in this dual reality” (p. 8).
The matriarch of this “Fab Four” was Laney, founder of the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, who often said, “I want to wear out, not rust out” (p. 16). Chapters 2 and 3 describe Laney as a mentor and model for all black female educators. Chapters 4 and 6 provide great insight into the lives of Bethune and Burroughs, respectively. Graduates of Bethune-Cookman College (now University) and the National Training School for Negro Women and Girls, Bethune and Burroughs emerged as self-sufficient wage earners. Chapter 7 emphasizes Brown and Bethune while discussing the networking and collegiality shared by black women who participated in this educational movement. The support of black men and of white men and women was paramount to the success of educational reforms, and McCluskey artfully connects these fascinating and complex relationships.
Cumulatively, the book’s content is powerful and should initiate additional research into other schools, nonprofit (club) organizations, alumni, and black educators. However, certain sections of the book are fragmented. Specifically, Chapter 5 is purportedly about Brown and the Palmer Memorial Institute, but the majority of the chapter is just a series of alumni interviews. While interesting, these interviews would have been more effective if incorporated into the narrative about Brown’s position that “black women [were] potentially the most powerful force in solving the racial divide,” which led her to insist on decorum and propriety in addition to rigorous coursework (p. 76).
A Forgotten Sisterhood: Pioneering Black Women Educators and Activists in the Jim Crow South adds immensely to existing historiography related to gender, race, class, education, health, and social reform during the post-Reconstruction and the Progressive eras. It should be essential reading for undergraduate and graduate courses. Further scholarship about black women leaders should continue to reconnect readers to women from the past who can serve as inspiration for generations of women to come.