Until April 15, when you walk up the stairs into Watzek Library and turn to the right, the powerful gazes of notable black women in history meet you. Some look into the distance as if they see the future. Some appear to not directly look at you but burn through you with a palpable fire behind their eyes. Showcasing these profoundly passionate women, the new exhibit “But We’ll Have Our Rights,” curated by Ombudsperson Valerie White, debuted Jan. 30 and features the stories and photographs of black female suffragists.
The exhibit hosts a display of numerous biographical panels with striking photos of the women, some of which were originally “cartes de viste,” or photographs the size of baseball cards traded among friends and family from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. Ida B. Wells Barnett, Sojourner Truth and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin are some of the women featured. One of these panels is exclusively dedicated to the suffrage movement in Oregon, and features Harriet “Hattie” Redmond and Beatrice Morrow Cannady, both of whom were janitors while they fought for black women’s right to vote.
Moreover, the exhibit features a maquette, or miniature replica, of the larger memorial for Harriet Tubman, entitled “Swing Low,” located in Harlem, New York. The creator of this spectacular piece, Alison Saar is also the artist behind the sculpture “York: Terra Incognita,” found on the academic side of campus near Watzek.
Facing southward, the bronze sculpture depicts Tubman running with a determined countenance with the front of her dress resembling the grill of a train, which alludes to her role as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad and pays homage to her steadfastness and perseverance. The rest of her petticoat depicts a multitude of faces, representing the many unnamed enslaved black people who were led to a safer life due to her courage. Finally, at the back of her dress Tubman is attached to the base by roots, which symbolize how she uprooted herself to make her courageous journeys. Yet, seeing that the roots are connected to the base, they potentially suggest that while she was able to liberate herself from being enslaved, she was still pulled down by numerous factors, such as inescapable racism and sexism.
An especially striking facet of the exhibition is the side-by-side comparison of the transcriptions of Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, which exemplifies the negative framing of black people by media sources throughout history. The widely circulated transcription published in New York Independent by journalist Frances Gage was published 12 years after she actually gave the speech. This transcription features a great deal of colloquial language reminiscent of southern dialect and numerous grammatical errors as if the writer deliberately emphasized the fact she did not have an education. Next to this version of the speech is a lesser known version of Truth’s speech transcribed by Marius Robinson, and published in “The Anti Slavery Bugle” in 1851. Robinson was a known audience member when Truth gave her speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, and thus his version is more historically accurate. His transcription is far more eloquent than Gage’s version, portraying Truth as a powerful, engaging speaker. However, it is important to note that because Truth could neither read nor write, there is no way to know exactly what she said.
The same panel also featured a QR code linking to videos of black women with Afro-Dutch accents reading the historically accurate version of Truth’s speech. As Truth spoke with this accent, the videos show how the speech would have sounded at the convention, which provides a unique glimpse into rhetorical history. The QR code can be found at the bottom of this article.
The inspiration for the exhibit stems from an accidental discovery. Flipping through an old family photo album, White found a photograph of a woman she did not recognize. Luckily there was a name written on the picture, and White conducted a simple Google search to see if there was any information about her. To her surprise, the mystery woman in the photograph turned out to be Mary Eliza Smith Duhart, president of the Garnet Equal Suffrage Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1914.
“My family was active in the Underground Railroad, and my great-great-grandfather was an underground railroad conductor and the first black officer of the Union army,” White said. “He was a chaplain, and so he knew some of these people … So I shouldn’t have been stunned that she was somebody, but particularly with women back then it’s so hard to find out information about them.”
Discovering the long-lost family friend was the catalyst for the idea and prompted White to reach out to Special Collections to see if an exhibit highlighting black women who, like Duhart, fought for the right to vote would be possible. From there, Special Collection employees Andrea Lewis ’21 and Tyler Short ’21 began working on the exhibit alongside White, gathering information and writing the biographies for the panels.
White explained that conducting research for this exhibit validated the values she had already been taught by her family.
“It reinforces what I know just from my own family’s history, is that anybody can make a difference,” White said. “And, you never know what it is that you’re doing that may not pay off today. It may be 50 years from now. It may be seven years from now. It may be somebody reading a letter you wrote 150 years from now. It just reinforces that it’s important to be part of what matters, on a grander scale than just yourself.”
The exhibit not only leaves room for future expansion but provokes viewers to investigate these women further. With all of the room it leaves for opportunity, this exhibit will hopefully evolve into a continued project, featuring similar powerful individuals involved in the fight for equity.
More information on the exhibit can be found on the Ombuds website.