Photo by Andrew Campbell
Forgotten Leaders — Scholar Reveals Historic Role of African American Women
Tell anyone in the field of African American studies that you are interested in studying the historic role of African American women, and they will undoubtedly point you in the direction of Darlene Clark Hine, a prolific force in the field.
But Hine, one of the latest additions to the African American studies department, readily admits that it was not her initial intent to focus on the women who have now become the center of her scholarly work.
"I had gone through graduate school, and I had studied African American history as my major field of concentration, and everything I studied focused on black men," says Hine, who did her graduate work at Kent State University. "When I wrote my first book [Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas (Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1979)], which is a political history of black efforts to get the right to vote in primary elections in the one-party South, I had focused all my attention on the political struggles of black men and the black men who were leaders."
Her exclusion of women's contributions was not intentional but simply representative of the training Hine had received up to that point.
That would all change in the summer of 1980 while Hine was teaching at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. A phone call from another African American woman there would realign Hine's direction of study and in many ways her life's work.
"Shirley Herd, the president of the Indianapolis Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, called me up and asked me if I would write a history of black women in Indiana," says Hine, who could hardly hold back laughter as she retold the story.
"I said to her that I cannot write this book at your request and that you cannot call a historian and order a book the way you would drive to a Wendy's and order a hamburger. I proceeded to lecture her on how historians write books and select topics [and told her] that I didn't know anything about black women's history. The only two black women I had ever studied in school were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and not one of them lived in Indiana."
Then it was Herd's turn to talk.
"She said, now let me get this straight," says Hine, who pictured Herd with her hand on her hip as she spoke on the phone.
"She said, 'You are a black woman, aren't you?'
"And I said, 'Yes.'
"She said, 'You are a historian, aren't you?'
"And I said, 'Yes.'
"And she said 'You mean to tell me that you can't put those two things together and write a history of black women in Indiana?'"
When Hine told Herd that she did not have the resources and documentation to write the history Herd and other African American women in her group demanded, Herd had an answer for that, too.
"The following Sunday, Shirley Herd and her friend, Virtea Downey, drove up in a white station wagon, and it was full of boxes with all of this material," Hine recalled. The women placed the boxes on Hine's living room floor, said a few prayers and left Hine to get started on her work.
"Once I started looking through those records, a whole new universe unfolded for me," Hine says.
"I began to see things in a different way," she says. "Here I had grown up in the church and been surrounded by women who were absolute anchors of the black church, and I never really saw them as being so important to the church because all the visible positions of leadership were held by men."
After sorting through the documents that the Indiana women had left her, Hine saw how black women had paid mortgages for churches and raised money to keep them afloat in hard times. Hine then remembered how when she went off to college at Roosevelt University, the women from Metropolitan Missionary Baptist — the West Side church where she was raised — gave her $100 to buy books.
The book on Indiana women took Hine about 18 months to complete. "After that I developed a new research agenda, and the second book I wrote was Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession [Indiana University Press, 1989].
"You begin to realize how unbalanced history is. It's one-sided, and one gender has been given all of the attention," Hine says. "Women were there and were doing interesting and important work in community building that we have been oblivious to."
Hine, the author or coauthor of more than a dozen books, also is the coeditor of Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Indiana University Press, 1994); coauthor of A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (Broadway, 1998); and author of Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History (Carlson Publishing, 1994). — C.L.