The legacy of Black women in the United States is one that may offer some insights into the potential impact of a Black woman in presidential leadership.
It’s easiest to start at the place where agency for the entire Black community in this country began. There were many forms of advocacy for resisting slavery. Figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth became known for taking the most direct approach possible by escaping to their freedom. Tubman’s legacy is such that she extended that approach to over 300 other slaves. Tubman would’ve gone even further by joining John Brown in his raid on Harpers Ferry, but an illness prevented her from the act.
More obscure is the history of schooling in the South. Before the Black leadership of the Reconstruction era insisted on a movement that, within five years of the end of the Civil War, culminated in establishing public schooling, many Black women raised funds and started public and private schools so that children and adults alike could have a chance at escaping poverty. For example, after one failed attempt at starting a school in 1852, in 1863, Maria W. Stewart successfully started a school in Washington, D.C. At around 1867, Susie King Taylor started a school for adults in Liberty County, Georgia.
But even when public schools were expected, there still weren’t enough of them. Figures like Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary McLeod Bethune continued the legacy of educating students in the generation following the Civil War. Burroughs started a school that taught 1,500 girls, while Bethune-Cookman College saw 100,000 students of varying ages between 1904 and 1941.
Later on, the anti-racist boycotts of the 1960s in the South and advocating for services from the state in Nevada in the 1970s and 1980s were other instances of Black women contributing heavily to pro-Black movements. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clearly the leader of various efforts in Alabama, but that movement was only possible because there was a vast constituency of female domestic workers who agreed to be a part of it. Similarly, Operation Life, the organization that brought the first medical center, daycare center, job training, and various other services to a previously ignored community in Nevada, was led by poor Black mothers from that community. They staged a series of grandiose protests that gained them funding for those services, and then they led various efforts to improve their community.
The legacy is real, but the events of the past, as orchestrated by people who have passed, are no sure indication of the events of the future. We must look at the people who are available today to take up the call of leadership.
Much has been said about Oprah’s politically-charged speech at the Golden Globes. While she has yet to make any clear statement about an intention to seek the White House, it is easy enough to examine her body of work. Many have pointed out that her vocation is “show business,” but she has also directly led various humanitarian efforts—domestic and abroad. The Oprah Winfrey Foundation provides grants for nonprofits, while the Angel Network develops leaders and provides access to education, among other activities. The Oprah Winfrey Operating Foundation funds a school called the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls – South Africa. Her gifting is a massive enterprise that seems to be overshadowed by her media activities—activities that were once a central pillar of her charitable efforts.
Before Oprah’s speech, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) was also viewed as a likely candidate. While her term in the senate began just last year, her past work as California’s attorney general reflects a contradictory nature. The overall body of her actions has been difficult to make sense of for this reason.
And then, there’s a slew of other, less known career politicians who have proven to be more progressive than Harris. One with a particularly long track record and large amount of name recognition is Marcia Fudge. She’s seen such roles as prosecutor, Mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, and Congressional Representative. Her work has been centered in the service of her constituents, a predominantly black group.
Still, there are no official candidates yet. It seems that the next presidential election will begin as soon as the candidates say they’re in.
Cover photo courtesy of WBUR