By Sally Kate Zaft, Staff Writer-
March is Women’s History Month, and a discussion regarding how Black women fought for their freedoms proved to be a powerful message for the present time.
On March 15, Dr. Keisha Blain spoke during a Zoom session titled “Black Women Organizing in the Global South.”
Dr. Susan Eckelmann Berghel, associate professor of history and director of Africana studies, invited Blain to speak.
“I invited Dr. Blain, an award-winning historian, to create an opportunity for UTC students to learn about Black women’s activism during the 1930s,” Blain said. “A time period, much like now, during which many Americans, especially people of color, experienced particularly economically challenging times while also finding courage and resources to mobilize Black communities.”
Blain focused on some key women figures during this time such as Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Celia Jane Allen, and Amy Ashwood.
Blain began with Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, who was a founding member of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia. The Peace Movement of Ethiopia happened to be the largest Black nationalist organization in the US that was founded by a woman.
“It’s in Arkansas that I think she began to formulate her ideas about black nationalist politics and particularly through her father who introduced her to the teachings of Bishop Henry McNeil Turner,” Blain said.
Blain talked about Celia Jane Allen when discussing the Peace Movement of Ethiopia. Allen organized people in the US South while Gordon took on other target areas.
Amy Ashwood was also brought up in the discussion of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia as a key figure.
“When Italy invades Ethiopia, Ashwood joins a group of activists in London to publicly advocate for anti-colonialism and demand political self-determination and racial equality,” Blain said.
Blain also mentioned how Gordon became a part of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
“It is fair to describe the UNIA as one of the most influential if not the most influential Black nationalist organization of the 20th century,” Blain said. “An organization that would facilitate a global Black political movement that advanced serval key aims.”
Eckelmann Berghel felt that overall, Blain spoke about important and timely subjects in Black women’s history.
“Dr. Blain’s talk presented critical insights into black women’s practices during a time when they battled sexism, racism, and classism. Her research amplifies women who are rarely featured in public discussions and school curricula addressing the 1930s,” Eckelmann Berghel said. “She shows how women like Mittie Maude Lena Gordon or Celia Jane Allen mentored local leaders and forged transnational connections. Dr. Blain’s talk highlighted how women transcended regional, national, and cultural barriers.”
At the conclusion of Blain’s talk, she left the audience with a few key points to remember and think about.
“A small but dynamic group of Black women utilized various strategies and tactics to improve the social and economic conditions of Black people. Their political activities were part of a larger transnational movement that connected the US South to the Global South,” Blain said. “Though miles apart, Black nationalist women during the 20th century were able to effectively build a movement that extended from Mississippi to Kingston Jamaica, laying the political groundwork for a new generation of activists who emerged in the 50s and the 60s.”
Blain made sure to emphasize the fact that the fight that these women dealt with last longer than they were able to fight in themselves.
“They also challenge us to rethink how we assess the legacies of individuals and political movements of the past. Despite their best efforts, these women did not live to witness the goals they hoped to attain, but long after they were gone, the ideas they promoted and the ideal for which they were fighting persisted,” Blain said. “New generations of Black activists would take up the mantel, often unaware of these women’s courageous stories. Far beyond political ideas and strategies, however, these women left a spirit of hope.”
Blain had the opportunity to answer a few student’s questions after her talk. These questions had to do with the economic struggles and about some of Blain’s writing on these topics.
Eckelmann Berghel felt that Blain answered their questions with great insight into the topics brought up.
“Following students’ powerful questions, Dr. Blain elaborated on how Black women resorted to creative tactics and cultivated, at times, unexpected alliances to improve the economic conditions of Black Americans during the 1930s,” Eckelmann Berghel said.
Blain left her audience with some final thoughts on the accomplishments of these women and how they impacted the world for many years to come.
“They did not accomplish all of their political goals, but the freedom dreams they envisioned propelled them to create new spaces and opportunities for people of color to openly confront discrimination and assert their political agency,” Blain said. “In so doing, these women left a lasting mark on the lines of countless Black people in the US and abroad. I believe that they will inspire new generations of activists for many years to come.”
Students can read Blain’s book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, published in 2018. They can also read Blain’s newer co-written book, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, published in 2021.