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Temple history professor reveals the overlooked legacy of black women

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SOURCE: Temple University

The story behind Temple historian Bettye Collier-Thomas’s latest book began more than 20 years ago with a discovery in the dusty basement of a Baltimore church.

While sifting through church minutes from the late 1800s she found discussions about sex-segregated seating in the sanctuary and debates about women’s religious suffrage.

“I literally stumbled over major black women leaders who were unknown,” she said.

Collier Thomas would spend the next two decades carefully reconstructing the histories of African-American organizations and individuals in preparation for what she calls “the next chapter” of her life: researching and writing a book that would demonstrate the significant role of religion in the lives of black women in American history and weave their long-hidden stories into the nation’s larger historical narrative.

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion, Collier-Thomas’s seventh book, has been greeted with the warmest of reviews. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it a “must-read” and a “tour de force for the study of women in religion.” A reviewer in the New York Times praised Jesus, Jobs, and Justice as “authoritative” and wrote that the “women in the book are heroic and their stories are moving.”

Spanning two centuries, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice is the first book to fully demonstrate how black churchwomen leaders created far-reaching secular and political organizations designed to attack racism and racial discrimination and sexism in American society. In addition to working to establish the black church as a cultural institution, these same women were instrumental in the fight for women’s suffrage, initiating the anti-lynching crusade, spurring the Civil Rights Movement and establishing national organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, the National League of Colored Republican Women and the National Council of Negro Women.

“It is extremely important to understanding the role and contributions of black women to the making of African America and their contributions to black religion; but also their centrality to the larger history of women in America,” said Collier-Thomas, a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and a member of the Temple faculty since 1989. “It is my hope that the average reader will discover that the religious and political activism of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune and Rosa Parks, though important, does not represent the length and breadth of black women’s involvement in the sheer creation and shaping of American history.”

The book’s title echoes a statement by one such overlooked shaper of history, Nannie Helen Burroughs, co-founder of the Woman’s Convention, auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention; a leader in the National Association of Colored Women; and a founder of the National League of Colored Republican Women. In anticipation of the end of Jim Crow segregation, Burroughs declared that the African American community would need more than religion to survive. “The Negroes must have Jesus, jobs and justice,” said Burroughs in 1955, following the enunciation of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down segregation in public school education.

To compile data for the book, Collier-Thomas had to become a detective, piecing together stories from centuries-old newspapers, periodicals and organizational records; searching public and private archives; and digging in church basements to find long-lost information on this overlooked segment of African-American history.

“Given the nature of the sources on African Americans and women, and the status of the scholarship on black women and women’s movements, it was extremely difficult to find materials on women and the black church,” Collier-Thomas said.

But that didn’t stop her from continuing to search for the full story.

“As a graduate student… I learned never to say that records do not exist; that it is a simply a matter of developing a research methodology applicable to one’s topic,” Collier-Thomas said.

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Written by Symphony

September 8, 2010 at 2:06 pm

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