I am a historian who specializes in 20th Century United States and Women’s/Gender History with a specialization in African American Women’s History. My research examines black women’s struggles for economic justice in the 20th century urban north.
This Woman’s Work: Black Women’s Economic Activism in Postwar Milwaukee
This Woman’s Work is the first monograph of its kind that analyzes black women’s pursuits for economic justice in the industrial city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the post World War II period, 1945-1970. In the predominantly working class city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, most manufacturing firms refused to hire black women, marking them as urban, industrial outcasts. In the face of their exclusion from Milwaukee’s industrial labor force, black women continually asserted their identity as workers and contributing members of a burgeoning black working class. They articulated an expansive, gender-inclusive community uplift model that had at its core economic AND political development. When called to speak out against injustice, black women continually illustrated the impact of interlocking race, gender, and economic oppressions. Despite consistent uprooting in an environment determined to marginalize their participation in the urban landscape, black women from a variety of backgrounds redefined, reclaimed, intervened on and challenged this exclusion. While scholars have analyzed either black economics or politics in Milwaukee, none have examined these two simultaneously and from the perspective of black women. This Woman’s Work joins the growing number of works that seek to deepen our understanding of African American’s twentieth century freedom struggle, which is increasingly being written about by historians as a struggle for racial, political, and economic justice.
Selected Peer Reviewed Journal Articles
“ ‘Fighting Their Own Economic Battles’: Saint Charles Lockett, Ethnic Enterprizes and the Challenges of Black Capitalism in 1970s Milwaukee.” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society special issue on: Black Women’s Labor: Economics, Culture and Politics, January-March 2016, 18:1.
This article examines African American businesswoman Saint Charles Lockett, a self-proclaimed feminist and Ethnic Enterprizes, her company. Established in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1970 at the height of deindustrialization and Black Power, as well as the dawn of neoliberalism, Ethnic Enterprizes hired mothers who received welfare benefits. Its goal was to be a “gateway to gainful employment.” After receiving numerous accolades, Lockett and Ethnic Enterprizes became mired in controversy because of its inability to pay its mother workforce more than the minimum wage. This led to its demise. Lockett and her firm deserve serious analysis because they provide an opportunity to examine a myriad of issues related to black working women, economic development, and the challenges of black capitalism in the urban industrial Midwest. Ethnic Enterprizes was Lockett’s response to black women’s exclusion from the industrial labor force, a route to black economic community development, and a vision for what could be possible for black working women. While examining the story of Saint Charles Lockett and Ethnic Enterprizes highlights the difficulties of excavating the voices of black working women who have been marginalized in the urban, industrial landscape, it also provides opportunities for theorizing about ways to magnify their voices in the historical record.
“ ‘Kept Right on Fightin…’: African American Working Women’s Activism in Civil Rights Era Milwaukee,” Journal of Civil and Human Rights, Issue 2:1, 2016, forthcoming
During and after World War II, many African Americans migrated to urban areas in the North and West in search of economic opportunities. Although they faced widespread job discrimination, Black women struggled for employment in offices, factories, and stores. Black women in Milwaukee organized in an autonomous club for working women, La Circle, and also submitted formal complaints attesting to the injustices. Although unsuccessful, their resistance had both local and national dimensions, especially when considered within the context of a surge in new scholarship that investigates the economic dimensions of mid-twentieth-century Black freedom struggles. These freedom fighters sowed the seeds for later activism by Black working women in the city, including union leader Nellie Wilson, who forced one of Milwaukee’s largest manufacturing companies, A. O. Smith, to eliminate gender discrimination from its hiring practices. These examples represent not only the persistence of Black women’s economic activism in postwar Milwaukee but also the nationwide emergence of such resistance during the civil rights era.
Selected Research and Writing in Progress
“It is a question of economics”: Civil Rights in Milwaukee after 1968 (book chapter, edited collection)
In the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of federal fair housing legislation, the city of Milwaukee passed its own fair housing legislation on April 30, 1968. While dramatic change would not happen overnight, by November of 1969, local real estate brokers, civil rights activists, and representatives from the state’s Equal Rights Division agreed that Milwaukee was still very much segregated. Despite vigorous and sustained protests, debates, and picketing, African Americans remained circumscribed to the segregated inner city. A member of the Milwaukee Board of Realtors explained what most already knew: “A mere law will not help people get a home. It is a question of economics.” The fact remained that substantial economic barriers prevented most African Americans from being able to move into better quality housing out of the inner city. This chapter examines the nature of Milwaukee’s civil rights struggles after 1968 and the work that remained to make hard won legislative victories “more than an intellectual exercise.” Well known civil rights activists like Helen Barnhill remained active but shifted focus on an underlying issue that black women had been quietly working on for decades: fair employment. Focusing on Barnhill and her work with the state’s Equal Rights Division and the Milwaukee chapter of Project Equality, which was started by the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice in 1965 and aimed to eradicate employment discrimination, this chapter examines the economic barriers that remained after the passage of monumental civil rights legislation and how city officials, businesspeople, community members and activists endeavored to increase the economic possibilities for the city’s African American population.
“To Rejoice in their History”: Jeanne Noble and the Challenge of Black Women’s History in the 1960s and 1970s (book chapter, edited collection)
Jeanne L. Noble was a prominent African American activist, educator and professor. She attended Howard University and Columbia University, earning her PhD from Columbia in educational psychology and counseling psychology in 1955. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s she served on a number of boards and commissions including the Defense Advisory Committee, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and also on the Board of Directors of the NY Urban League, the Girl Scouts of the USA and as national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. In the late 1960s, Noble began work on the book Beautiful, Also, Are the Souls of My Black Sisters: A History of Black Women, which was eventually published in 1978. Using the Jeanne L. Noble Papers, a massive collection donated to the Sophia Smith Collection in Women’s History at Smith College, this essays examines Noble as an activist-intellectual and considers the impact of her work on behalf of women in higher education and in society more generally during the 1960s and 1970s. The essay also puts Noble’s work in conversation with other works published during this period that focused on the lives, experiences and history of black women such as Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images (1978).