Excerpt from Freedom’s Daughters
Chapter One: “Far More Terrible for Women”
It was April 22, 1944, a warm Saturday in Washington, D.C. The skies threatened rain, but the cherry trees near the Jefferson Memorial were in bloom, and hundreds of people, many of them soldiers and sailors in uniform, strolled the banks of the Tidal Basin to admire the lacy pink and white foam of the blossoms. News from the war was mostly good: The Marines had recently captured blood-soaked Iwo Jima, the Fifth Army was about to liberate Rome. In the capital city of the United States, however, a small, thin black woman named Pauli Murray had a different sort of liberation in mind.
Murray, due to graduate in June from Howard University Law School, was standing with some other Howard students outside Thompson’s cafeteria, a few blocks northeast of the Tidal Basin. She watched as her fellow students slipped, two and three at a time, inside the cafeteria. Finally, Murray took a deep breath and joined them. Once inside, she picked up a tray and entered the serving line. When the stone-faced employees behind the steam tables refused to serve her, as they refused to serve any black, Murray silently carried her empty tray to a table and sat down among the other black students who had been turned away.
The silent demonstration at Thompson’s cafeteria, led by Murray and three other Howard activists on a cloudy afternoon in wartime Washington, was a harbinger. But it did more than prefigure many similar actions almost two decades later. It also symbolized the importance of women to a movement that always seemed to be dominated by men. Of the approximately fifty black students who sat in that day at Thompson’s, most were women, and all of the leaders were. Together, they had stepped from behind a historical curtain and, for the moment, were deferring to no one. Sitting at Thompson’s table, waiting to be served, they read textbooks and poetry. Some were glancing at the latest issue of the liberal tabloid newspaper P.M. Others watched apprehensively through the windows as a crowd of whites gathered on the sidewalk, where another group of students walked a picket line, carrying placards. One of the placards read: “Are You for HITLER’S Way (Race Supremacy) or the AMERICAN Way (Equality)? Make Up Your Mind!” And another: “We Die Together. Why Can’t We Eat Together?” Some soldiers jeered and taunted the pickets. A woman spat at them. Through it all, “[o]ur demonstrators were thoroughly disciplined,” Murray wrote to her friend Eleanor Roosevelt several days later. “No response was made to any taunt . . . We clamped down on our teeth and kept our eyes straight ahead.”
The manager of Thompson’s pleaded with the students to leave, but they replied, politely, that they would stay till they could eat. By dinnertime, the cafeteria’s trade had dropped by half. After several desperate telephone calls from Thompson’s manager to his superiors, an order finally came down from the chain’s national headquarters: Serve the demonstrators. Even with that, two of Thompson’s waitresses refused, so the manager and the chain’s district supervisor quickly filled in. For the first time since Reconstruction, a downtown whites-only eating establishment in Washington, D.C., was serving black customers.
“It is difficult to describe the exhilaration of that brief moment of victory,” Murray wrote long afterward. The sit-in at Thompson’s was the culmination of months of intense planning and training. The participating students had been carefully selected, then rigorously schooled in the nonviolent principles and tactics of Mahatma Gandhi. Each student had signed a pledge not to retaliate against harassment or violence. And it had all worked! Soon, however, the glow of victory vanished. The press wasn’t much interested, and the president of Howard University, fearing a backlash from a Congress dominated by Southern racists, ordered the students to suspend further action. Murray was furious that the students’ “brief act of imaginative defiance, a commando raid against entrenched racism . . . which, if expanded, could have brought new hope to millions of black Americans,” was so abruptly and completely throttled. But throttled it was, and, with the pressure lifted, Thompson’s went back to “no Negroes allowed.”
Not until sixteen years later would civil rights demonstrators use the same kind of nonviolent resistance employed by Murray and her fellow students. By then most activists didn’t even know who Pauli Murray was. When Eleanor Holmes, a brilliant young Yale law student and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, returned to Yale for classes after a summer of civil rights work in 1963, she met Murray, who was then studying for her doctorate in law. Holmes, who as Eleanor Holmes Norton would later become a noted civil rights lawyer and the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had never heard of the 1944 Howard sit-in. She recalled being stunned on learning about the “nerve and bravery of this little woman who had already done what we were only beginning to do [but without] the safety and protection of the full-blown movement and reformist national mood that cushioned our risk.”
Important as Murray was to the history of the early civil rights movement in the United States, she and the other Howard women with whom she demonstrated were merely in the middle of a long line of female soldiers of change, black and white, that stretched from the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement forward to twentieth-century civil rights and feminism. Indeed, the interconnections between race and gender, and between racism and misogyny, have helped place women at the very center of social ferment and conflict over the last two centuries of American history. Pauli Murray thus stands as a bridge between present and past. The granddaughter of a slave and great-granddaughter of a slave owner, she sprang from a family whose history, like the histories of countless others, illustrates how far the United States has come since the days of slavery, unbridled racism, and pernicious sexism — and how far it has still to go.
From the beginning, from the days of slavery and the drive for abolition, women of both races were deeply involved. Wrote Frederick Douglass in 1881: “When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, woman will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.” For women, there was a particular spur, a special urgency in the nineteenth-century struggle to abolish slavery. Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who wrote a book about her experiences in captivity, put it this way: “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and suffering, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”
Slave women were expected to work as diligently and as long as men in the fields, but they also had to bear children, raise them, cook, sew, clean, and perform other household chores for their families. Because the field work was so harsh, and medical care and nutrition so poor, miscarriages and stillbirths were all too common. Many women were weak and in constant physical pain, many looked and seemed old by the time they reached their twenties and thirties. Nor did their gender shield women from whippings and the other brutal punishments and treatments of slavery. If their children managed to survive babyhood, they still could be lost forever at the whim of a master who decided to sell them. “Babies was snatched from deir mother’s breasts and sold to speculators,” one old ex-slave recalled after the Civil War. “Chillens was separated from sisters and brothers and never saw each other again. I could tell you about it all day, but even den you couldn’t guess de awfulness of it.”
Yet brutality and degradation were not the mortifications that Harriet Jacobs wrote about. Uppermost in her mind, as in the minds of most slave women, was the ever-present danger of rape by white men. The silent menace of interracial rape and concubinage hung over the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South like a dense miasma. Teenage girls were especially vulnerable, never knowing when they might be preyed upon by their master, the master’s son or other relative, the overseer, a neighbor. As hard as black women might fight against such assault, they were, more often than not, forced to submit. According to sociologist Louis Wirth, the sexual assault of slave women by white men was ubiquitous throughout the South. Indeed, it was regarded in some quarters as a rite of sexual passage for young white men. “[N]o likely looking Negro, or more especially mulatto, girl was apt to be left unmolested by the white males,” Wirth wrote. “[V]ery few of the young white men grew up ‘virtuously’ and their loss of virtue was scarcely to be attributed to cohabitation with white women.” For generation after generation, young black women in the South were refused what most cultures deem the birthright of women: They were, as Maya Angelou put it, “denied chastity and refused innocence.”
Pauli Murray’s maternal grandmother, Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, was born into slavery as a result of just such a rape, a fact that haunted Murray until the end of her life. Her great-grandmother, a beautiful light-skinned slave named Harriet, had been given as a gift to Mary Ruffin Smith, the daughter of a North Carolina plantation owner, on the young white woman’s eighteenth birthday. Harriet became Mary Ruffin Smith’s personal slave. A few years later, she married a free black farmer and bore a son. But Smith’s two bachelor brothers — Sidney, a lawyer and politician, and Frank, a doctor — had had their eyes on Harriet, too. Sidney, in particular, took to following her around, frequently cornering her and trying to kiss her. She resisted and began nailing the door of her cabin shut at night. Then, in 1843, Sidney Smith finally made clear who was master and who was slave. After ordering Harriet’s husband off the plantation, Sidney broke down her cabin door and raped her.
Copyright © 2002 Lynne Olson