September – October 1991

The Black Women Oral History Project was initiated in response to recommendations made in the mid 1970s that the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College collect the memoirs of a selected group of older Black women.

The Project was conceived as a means of preserving the voices and stories of Black women. Through professional or voluntary activities at either the local or the national level, these women had made significant contributions toward improving the lives of not only African Americans but of all peoples. From 1976 to 1981, 71 women from across the United States were interviewed on tape by Black women scholars and graduate students working with the Advisory Committee of the Schlesinger Library. Many interviewees had careers in fields such as education, government, the arts, business, medicine, law, and social work. Others combined care for their families with service to their communities or regions. The Project did not attempt to identify all outstanding Black women in the country; rather, it sought to interview a cross section of the many women of African descent who made significant contributions of varying kinds to American society in the early and mid decades of the twentieth century.

The women spoke of their family backgrounds, upbringing, and education, of influences which led them to choose their careers or public activities, of their professional and voluntary accomplishments, and of how being a Black and a woman had affected their opportunities and choices. The Schlesinger Library houses the original and master tapes, transcripts, and supporting documentation of the interviews. Copies of the transcripts have been made available to other educational and nonprofit institutions. The University of Iowa Libraries’ multi-volume set of the transcripts is available to the public.

In 1981 photographer Judith Sedwick offered her services to photograph some of the Project participants. The resulting portfolio of 10 color portraits was so impressive as to secure funding for Ms. Sedwick to photograph more interviewees. Traveling throughout the country, she photographed 30 more of the women. Working only with natural light, Ms. Sedwick captured the character and personality of the participants, each at her own home or in her professional environment. The qualities of compassion, strength, energy, humor, and courage, which underlie the participants’ accomplishments are evident in the photographs. Ms. Sedwick then printed the portraits and assisted in their arrangement for the exhibition, which has been shown throughout the United States since 1984. Some black and white portraits taken by other photographers were supplied for women who could not be photographed by Ms. Sedwick.

Three of the women included in the Women of Courage exhibition have ties to Iowa. Fidelia O. Johnson received the Master’s Degree in Home Economics from The University of Iowa in 1945; her thesis is held by the Libraries. The theses from Margaret Walker’s 1940 Master’s and 1965 Doctoral degrees in English, representing the first versions of her book of poetry, For My People, and her classic novel, Jubilee, respectively, are also in the Libraries’ collections. The distinguished journalist and editor Era Bell Thompson was born and educated in Iowa; she graduated from Morningside College in Sioux City.

This exhibition was prepared by Marianne Ryan, Christine Tade, and William Welburn, with assistance from Pamela Spitzmueller.