The National Women’s History Museum recently opened an exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. that honors the contributions of Black women activists throughout history. The exhibit highlights the important role that Black women played in shaping national policy in Washington, D.C., from the turn of the 20th century through the civil rights and Black Power movements.
Black feminist activists in Washington, D.C. have made significant contributions to the advancement of women’s rights and racial equality. One example is Mary Church Terrell, a suffragist, and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1896. Terrell was a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage and worked to desegregate public spaces in Washington, D.C.
Another prominent Black feminist activist was Dorothy Height, who served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for over 40 years. Height was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and worked closely with other civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis.
In addition to Terrell and Height, Black women in Washington, D.C. were involved in many other social justice movements. For example, in the 1970s, a group of Black women formed the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in response to the marginalization of Black women within the broader feminist movement. The NBFO was instrumental in bringing attention to issues such as reproductive justice and the intersections of race, gender, and class.
Overall, the contributions of Black women activists in Washington, D.C. have been essential to the advancement of civil rights and women’s rights in the United States. The exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library serves as a powerful reminder of their important work and the ongoing struggle for social justice.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington, D.C. hosted the debut of the National Women’s History Museum’s inaugural in-person exhibition on Thursday, March 30, 2023, as Women’s History Month came to a close. The exhibit, entitled “We Who Believe in Freedom: Black Feminist DC,” showcases the impactful contributions of Black women activists in Washington, D.C. who played a crucial role in shaping national policy from the turn of the 20th century through the civil rights and Black Power movements.
Our family was invited to join the debut in-person exhibition. We were lucky enough to talk to a few prominent people who helped the exhibit come to life. Here is what they had to say about new the exhibit and the two years of hard work that went into this project:
“Our inaugural exhibit explores the stories and voices of Black feminist organizers and theorists whose work changed the trajectory for the lives of millions—work that continues today and is often overlooked in history books,” said Susan D. Whiting, Board Chair, NWHM. “The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is a beautiful venue to exhibit this important cultural content and, as a public building, ensures that the exhibit is accessible to all.”
The exhibit was curated by historians Dr. Sheri M. Randolph, an associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the co-director of the Black Feminist Think Tank, and Dr. Kendra T. Field, an associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University.
“There has never been an exhibit like this, focused primarily on Black feminists, thinkers, writers and activists,” Dr. Randolph said. “The question we as curators are often asked, is why is Black feminism important, and the answer is simple – why not. We cannot understand this current moment in activism, from the #MeToo movement to Black Lives Matter and even Kamala Harris and how she became Vice President, without understanding the Black feminists who stood in our past and are also part of this current movement.
“One Black feminist in particular is Pauli Murray, and she says this really important quote that really guided both of us through this project, ‘When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them,’” Dr. Randolph added. “Freedom for Black feminists always meant a larger circle, so welcome to this larger circle.”
Dr. Nancy O’Reilly also added “Black feminists have not been recognized for their important work in securing rights for all women, and for the things they have done to lift all women up. Black women, all women, need to see themselves as a part of history, while also recognizing that equity and equality in our country is still lacking. The important issues that many of these Black feminists fought for still exist and this exhibition creates awareness around the importance of Black feminists and their mission while also highlighting the work that needs to be done,” Dr. Nancy said. “The Equal Pay and Equal Rights Amendments are two immediate things that come to mind. Ultimately, we will not eliminate our country’s problems until we come together and treat one another with respect and appreciation. This exhibition reminds us of this and inspires us to carry on. We are all in this together, and together all things are possible.”
How to see the We Who Believe in Freedom: Black Feminist DC Exhibit?
We Who Believe in Freedom: Black Feminist DC will be open and free to the public through September 2024, and was made possible by founding investors: AARP Foundation, ArentFox Schiff, Jon S. and Kerrie Bouker, Chicago Pacific Founders, Mari Snyder Johnson, Kaiser Permanente, Morgan Stanley, Dr. Nancy O’Reilly, Silver Mountain Foundation for the Arts, Meryl Streep, Mary Tolan, Susan D. Whiting, and the Women Connect4Good Foundation. A companion website with more information about Black Feminist DC is available here. To learn more visit NWHM at www.womenshistory.org.