Getting the Facts Right: A Repository of Black Women’s Activism

Many of us saw the headlines on newspapers and social media in November 2015: “The University of Missouri President Just Resigned Amid Protests of Racism on Campus.” The mainstream story stars Jonathan Butler, a Black graduate student at the University of Missouri, and the university football team. On November 2, 2015, Butler went on a hunger strike protesting the “slew of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., incidents” that permeated the lives of Black students at Mizzou. However, it was November 7 that anchored the narrative when the football team announced they would boycott all football-related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigned. Just 48 hours later, Tim Wolfe announced his resignation, and college presidents everywhere were put on notice: Black students were demanding diverse and equitable campuses and administrators had better listen up. Butler and the football team, the media told us, had won.

What is missing from the Mizzou story, however, are the women. It was Black women that organized strategy phone calls with alumni and put their bodies on the line when confronting Tim Wolfe. Black women led workshops and protest rehearsals and told personal stories about facing racism on campus. Why, then, were their stories erased from the narrative of student protests at Mizzou and other campuses nationwide?

Universities have a long history of erasing the role of Black people in their founding and institutional transformations. Last fall, as a member of the Committee for the History of Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, I participated in a much-needed discussion about the role of Black and Native communities in Rutgers’ founding. Not recognizing these stories, we argued, would misrepresent Rutgers’ history. The book we subsequently published, Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, anchored the history of Rutgers in the stories of people like Will, the enslaved man who laid the foundation for the university’s first building. Telling his story, along with the story of Sojourner Truth, whose life also intertwines with Rutgers, is pivotal to understanding the success of the university today.

So when we think about the Mizzou protests as marking a new era of student activism nationwide, I ask us to remember the women. We must remember the women because we must get the facts right. Black women too often bear the burden of social change while their labor is exploited and erased — even in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, a hashtag started by three Black women.

We must remember women like Ayanna Poole and DeShaunya Ware, student activists at Mizzou, whose labor ignited campus protests nationwide and shook college administrators.

We must remember women like Ida B. Wells, whose commitment to journalism and anti-racism launched her anti-lynching crusade in 1892, a treacherous endeavor that forced her to leave Memphis, Tennessee. When we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we must also honor and celebrate women like Ella Baker, who criticized Dr. King’s “charismatic” leadership in favor of a movement shaped by poor Black people themselves. “Martin didn’t make the movement,” she famously claimed. “The movement made Martin.”

When we ignore the Black women of Mizzou, when we forget women like Ella Baker, when we refuse to #thankablackwoman, we not only erase their contributions, but we also get the facts wrong.

Recognizing the long history of Black women’s activism is an exercise in intellectual honesty. It forces us to get the story right and highlights how embedded sexism is in what we think we know. In this moment of change and activism, we must get the story right. We must uplift the names of women in our communities and college campuses so that we don’t erase their stories like universities have erased the labor of Black and other people of color. Who are the Black women transforming the institutions around you? Make space for them here, let’s create a repository of their stories and finally pay them for their labor.