This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
Hallie Quinn Brown knew the power of Black women and she urged anyone who’d listen to her to let that power flourish, according to historians.
“Ever hear of Hallie Quinn Brown? If not, look her up,” Greg Carr, chair of the Department of Afro American Studies at Howard University, wrote on Twitter.
“After that, read some of her work. Start with ‘Homespun Heroines,’ her compendium of African woman exemplars,” wrote Carr, a two-time Male HBCU Professor of the Year.
Teacher, writer, and a women’s activist, Brown was born on March 10, 1850, in Pittsburgh.
She was the daughter of former slaves who in 1864 migrated to Ontario, Canada. The family returned to America in 1870, settling in Wilberforce, Ohio, where Brown attended college.
After receiving a degree in 1873, Brown taught in freedman’s schools in Mississippi before moving to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1875. There, she briefly served as an instructor in the city’s public schools, according to BlackPast.org.
By September 1875, she joined the faculty at Allen University, where she taught from 1875 to 1885. Later, she served as dean of the university and then as dean of Women at Tuskegee Institute.
In a feature written for the National Endowment for the Arts magazine, Humanities, Martha S. Jones wrote that Brown knew the power of Black women and urged anyone who heard her to let it flourish.
“Read her remarks from 1889 and you might believe she saw the future or at least had the capacity to call it into being,” Jones wrote.
She quoted Brown, who said: “I believe there are as great possibilities in women as there are in men. … We are marching onward grandly. … We love to think of the great women of our race—the mothers who have struggled through poverty to educate their children. …
“There are many wives who are now helping to educate their husbands at school, by taking in sewing and washing… I believe in equalizing the matter. Instead of going to school a whole year, he ought to stay at home one half, and send his wife the other six months. …
“I repeat, we want a grand and noble womanhood, scattered all over the land. There is a great vanguard of scholars and teachers of our sex who are at the head of institutions of learning all over the country. We need teachers, lecturers of force and character to help to teach this great nation of women.”
The remarks, which were delivered before a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, marked a debut for Brown as an advocate of women’s rights, including the right to vote.
“I recently revisited the life of Hallie Quinn Brown after having long known her as part of a generation of Black women activists who battled Jim Crow in its early decades,” Jones wrote.
“Students of African-American women’s history know Brown best by way of her 1926 edited collection of biographical essays, ‘Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction,’ which remains a useful reference,” Jones noted.
“But finding Brown leading a challenge to the ‘mammy’ monument made me rethink what I knew. I am at work on a history of Black women and the vote, and one thing has already become clear: I must always look for early 20th-century Black suffragists in unexpected places.
“The racism they encountered in better remembered suffrage organizations, such as the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) or the National Women’s Party (NWP) meant that too few women like Brown worked through those organizations.
“To tell their stories, I must follow their lead. [Brown] was part of a ‘great vanguard’ prepared to fight back and further empower a ‘great nation of women.'”