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Women of strength, courage

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by Naomi Lede, The Huntsville Item

blackwomenhistoryThe 2008 election elevated Michelle Obama to the position of first lady of the United States. Her rise to power reminds us of the unique roles played by African-American women in the origin, growth and development of America. Historical accounts confirm the unique strength and courage of a cadre of women who were committed to freedom. A particular example may be found among African-American women in the military who played major and minor roles in various wars, beginning with the Revolutionary War.

During the Colonial period, they provided help to the militia. Their assistance included roles such as “supporting the slave owner’s wife while he was serving in the militia, taking care of wounds, and working along side the men in building forts for safety from both the Indians and the British.

African-American women played a major role as spies during the Revolutionary War. They provided Colonial authorities information about the British. Reports indicate that the promise of freedom from slavery was a motivating factor. According to Lucy Terry’s recollections about the war, black women disguised themselves as men and fought side by side with them against the British. Phillis Wheatley, a very literate woman, used her writing ability to praise and express appreciation for General George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

In February 1776, he invited her to visit him at his headquarters so that he could personally express his appreciation to her.

Since the War of 1812 was basically a naval war, the assistance women provided was limited to making bandages and tending the sick and wounded sailors. Black women took care of the farms when white men went off to war.

During the Civil War Harriet Tubman became an inspiration to all who loved and valued freedom. A special portrait of Harriet Tubman is part of an African American exhibit on display at Heritage House Exhibits on FM 1791 in Huntsville.

Tubman served as a Union spy, an unpaid soldier, a volunteer nurse and a freedom fighter. She loved freedom so much that she left her husband and brother behind when they chose not to run the risk of escaping from slavery. Her services during the Civil War earned her the name “General” Tubman from the soldiers in the field.

An examination of human events associated with other periods of history is found in other remarkable stories of courage, sacrifice, devotion to duty and concern for human welfare. Such is the case involving Susan King Taylor.

Susan was born on Aug. 6, 1848, on the Isle of Wight, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. She was the daughter of Hagar Ann and Raymond Baker. At the age of 7, her parents were permitted by their master to send their children to live with their grandmother, Dolly Reed, a free person of color.

This was a necessary action to ensure that Susan and her younger brother would not be children left behind because of slave codes that prohibited learning that were enforced by a cruel and evil Southern aristocracy.

Since state laws prohibited the education of slaves, Dolly Reed defied the unjust laws by sending her grandchildren to a secret school run by a friend. Later, in her memoirs, Susie wrote: “We went everyday about 9 O’clock with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them.

After attending the school for two years, she received private tutoring from two white playmates of her grandmother’s landlord. By the age of 12 she was able to join the ranks of a select few black slaves in Georgia who had command of the language. She escaped slavery and was teaching freedmen by the time she was 16.

The impact of Susan King Taylor’s early education motivated her to achieve against all odds. She became famous for her volunteer service during the Civil War. Technically, she may have been the first black female nurse to work on the front lines. During the war, she met Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who inspired her. She served as a nurse and launderer for Black Civil War troops as she traveled with her husband’s unit, the 33rd United States Colored Troops. Later, she formed the Boston Branch of the Women’s Relief Corps after the war. Taylor wondered whether the Civil War had been fought in vain.

“All we ask for is equal justice,” she wrote. “I hope the day is not far distant when the two races will reside in peace…I know I shall not live to see the day, but it will come.” (American Legacy, Spring, 2008). Since her death in 1912, the nation has made significant strides toward freedom and justice for all, particularly in the Armed Forces.

African-American females served as nurses during the Spanish-American War. Over 75 percent of all deaths during that war resulted from typhoid and yellow fever.

The Army was so pleased with the 32 contract nurses, congressmen tried but failed to create a permanent corps of Army nurses. During World War I, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was founded in 1909. From that date to the present, women have served in great numbers from World War II to Desert Storm to the War in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Naomi W. Ledé is a retired Senior Research Scientist, Distinguished Professor and former University Administrator. She serves as Chair of the Board of the Samuel Walker Houston Museum and Cultural Center in Huntsville, Texas.


Written by Symphony

November 29, 2008 at 7:29 am

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