For Mississippians, celebrating Women’s History Month means recognizing innumerable ‘home girls’

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Spotlighting or even listing the women who deserve recognition in the complex history of Mississippi is more than a daunting task. It is truly an impossible task. Yet, it is one that should be undertaken. 

The writer realizes that there will be many omitted from this article, but proceeds, nevertheless. With that in mind, we offer an apology upfront for the names omitted that should be included. In addition to that, he encourages others who know of such women to make them publicly known for history and future references.

We begin this salute with the twelve Black women who are serving in the MS State Legislature since they are the current beneficiaries of the struggles of many of the sisters who appear in the rest of the article. There are three senators – Angela Turner Ford, Barbara Blackmon, and Sarita Simmons – and nine representatives – Omeria Scott, Alyce Clarke, Angela Cockerham, Stephanie Foster, Debra Gibbs, Lataisha Jackson, Hester Jackson McCray, Zakiya Summers, and Sonia Williams Barnes. These women currently speak for the Black community and have the awesome burden of maintaining and expanding political, social, and economic opportunities for that community. 

Historically, Women’s History Month may have perhaps never been created and publicized had it not been for what women have done in the field of civil rights. In that regard, we present a list of activists from that field of endeavor. It is not an exhaustive list, but does include many who were quite instrumental in improving conditions in this state. We begin with Ida B. Wells from Holly Springs. Fortunately, her story has been recognized in both Black history and authentic American history. Her place has been further recognized by, among other things, recently having a high-achieving school in the city of Jackson named in her honor. Others of similar stature include Mamie Till of Webb, the mother of Emmett Till. She, like Wells, had to literally barge her way into history through her wisdom, courage, and tenacity.

These pioneers in civil rights were joined by a mighty caravan in the 1960s and 70s. Among them were Gladys Noel Bates of Jackson, who filed a lawsuit aimed at getting Black teachers’ salaries equal to those of white teachers. For that, she and her husband were not only fired, they were “black-balled” as educators in the state. Dr. Jane Ellen McAllister of Vicksburg not only asserted her right to sit up front on the bus ride to Jackson, but also “won” the privilege of being dropped off at her workplace rather than e at the downtown bus station. Others included Susie Ruffin of Laurel, Annie Devine of Canton, June Johnson of Greenwood, Winson Hudson of Harmony, Vera Pigee of Clarksdale, Victoria Gray of Hattiesburg, Ida Lawrence and Blanch Phillips of Rosedale, Mary Harrison Lee of Jackson, Fannie Lou Hamer of Sunflower County, Unita Blackwell of Mayersville. All of them were women who made their way when there was no way through speaking, organizing, marching, and boycotting. They engaged in such politics of protest while trying to live regular lives in their communities.

Then there were women in the making, so to speak. They were students such as the four members of the Tougaloo Nine – Ethel Sawyer, Geraldine Edwards Hollis, Evelyn Pierce, and Janice Jackson. They included Brenda Travis of McComb, who led the school boycott in her hometown; Dorie and Joyce Ladner of Hattiesburg; Ruby Magee of Tylertown; and Rosie Pearson of Jackson. Also included are the scores of students whose parents prepared them to desegregate the state’s public schools. Among those students were Joanie and Deborah Perkins of Simpson County, Ella Brown of Rosedale, and Ruby Bridges of Tylertown and later New Orleans. To a person, they were warriors.

It is important to remember that among the scarcity of Black lawyers in the state, Constance SlaughterHarvey of Forest was there to litigate the case against the law enforcement officers who attacked the students and bystanders at Jackson State College in 1970. She went on to litigate other civil rights cases after having been a student civil rights leader at Tougaloo. Other women lawyers followed in later years.

It should also be noted that in the field of civil rights, many white women have involved themselves. Very often it was white women who traveled to the state as a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Viola Liuzzo, who was assassinated by White terrorists, is not the only such example. Rita Schwerner, the wife of a slain civil rights worker, is not the only white person to have volunteered to work in the movement. In the Jackson area Judy Barber, Margrit Garner and Jan Hillegas still remain from the movement days. Lexington journalist Hazel Brannon Smith is one, but not the only, white who helped give exposure to what was happening during the movement. She was just an earlier version of Mississippi Free Press editor Donna Ladd. It should also be noted that there were organized white women groups that assisted the so-called Freedom Riders, such as those who helped create and participated in Church Women United. These too are a part of the recognition that is needed during Women’s History Month. 

Civil rights, as a field of endeavor, is so high on the list in Mississippi because Black people were so far behind and because there were so many fronts on which action was needed. Black women stepped forward because it had often been them or nobody to do so. Slavery and other forms of oppression had often eliminated the Black man in more ways than one. Furthermore, leadership and struggle had been a part of life for many African civilizations.

Not that we have exhausted the field of women civil rights warriors in Mississippi who deserve recognition, we are merely running out of space and time. We, therefore, turn to the field of education.

One of the most unsung heroines in Mississippi and among Black scholars is Lizzie Coleman of Greenville. Coleman was one of the few Black educators who served as the principal of a public high school. Yet, based on her inspiration, Coleman High School developed into one of the most noted high schools, not just in the Mississippi Delta or even the state of Mississippi but across the country. It has sent scores of graduates to careers in baseball, football, track, and basketball. Its graduates are among the top musicians, lawyers, doctors, scholars, and educators in communities around the country. 

Also employed at Coleman High School during those years was a brilliant choir director, Hertistine Jones, whose choirs won the state song festival for 22 years in a row. Other Black women there and elsewhere have labored over the years, helping to produce or develop top-flight students in many fields. 

In a recent article in the Jackson Advocate, the writer spotlighted several other women teachers who have largely gone unrecognized, but who were invaluable in their day and time. For him, there will always be glowing memories of Mrs. Lillie Dailey Smith, Mrs. Mable Moore, Mrs. Georgia Phillips, Mrs. Blanch Wade, Mrs. Bertha Watson, And Mrs. Annie Randall from his days in Rosedale. The same holds for Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander, Dr. Jane Ellen McAllister, Dr. Gloria Evans, and Dr. Rose E. Mc Coy – teachers at Jackson State College. 

A generation of students from Coahoma Junior College will always cherish the memories of Dean Mary Whiteside and the class sessions of Mrs. Z.A. Barron. The same is true of the herculean efforts of Dr. Arenia Mallory at Saints Industrial Junior College. They are the most memorable. 

As time passes, it is imperative that more names of great Black women teachers emerge. Those from Alcorn College, Jackson State College, Mississippi Vocational College, Campbell College, Rust College, Tougaloo College, and Mississippi Industrial College as well as from Harris Junior College, Utica Junior College, Coahoma Junior College, Natchez Junior College, Prentiss Institute, and Piney Woods Country Life School.

As one might assume from some other comments, many Black schools and colleges were heavily manned by Black women. This often occurred because many Black men dropped out of school to go to work. It happened to a lesser degree because teaching was sometimes seen as more of a female profession. In keeping with the idea of teaching being more a female profession, teachers were also not paid very highly. Many elementary teachers picked and chopped cotton in the off-season in order to make ends meet. If and when men teachers were hired, they were either at the high school level or as coaches and administrators. Regardless of the circumstances, however, many children were blessed with dedicated teachers and need to recognize those Black women.

It should be noted that in the earliest of days, many Black schools and colleges were started and operated by white missionaries and educators from northern churches and organizations. Black educators increasingly took over as they gained college degrees, teaching licenses, and community support. In some cases, the schools that catered to or accepted Black students were Catholic schools run by nuns. These, along with the public institutions established for Black children, kept the door open and led the way until we could witness the wonder workings of the Colemans, Whitesides, and others.

 As they gained power enough, they helped spearhead the movement to pursue equal funding for the segregated Black schools. This marked the joining of the valiant efforts in education to those in civil rights.

In terms of athletics, at least four names deserve special recognition because they stand heads and shoulders above the pack. The first of these is Mildred Netter of Rosedale, who won a Gold Medal as part of the 440-relay team in the 1968 Summer Olympics. A few years later, Lusia Harris of Minter City put Delta State College on the map by leading it to three consecutive national championships. She was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz but of course declined the offer. The third is Ruthie Bolton of Lucedale, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame based upon her career in the WNBA. Finally, there is Denise Taylor of Cleveland, who, after her successful college playing days, served as head coach of the Utah Stars of the WNBA. We need to keep our eyes open because other great female athletes are surely finding their way.

Our sisters of Mississippi are making giant waves in the entertainment industry, which for years remained relatively closed, except for such subservient roles as were played by Hattie Mcdaniel. Despite the nature of her roles, nevertheless, she was able to earn an Oscar award for her skills. Since those days, the state can now boast of Tougaloo’s Aunjanue Ellis, Oprah Winfrey of Kosciusko, Tommie Harris Stewart of Greenwood, and Brandy of McComb as first-rate actresses. The writings of JSU’s Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander and Angie Thomas of Jackson have been highly recognized and presented on stage and screen. Although not as nationally recognized, there are numerous up-and-coming women making a name for themselves in the industry, such as comedienne Rita Brent of Jackson. They deserve a salute, as do veterans like Lady V of Jackson and Maggie Wade of Rankin County. 

In a manner similar to civil rights, the state in recent years started to develop a Blues trail, which highlights Black singers and musicians. It bears repeating that among the noted ones who are women, the number in music in general is relatively large and needs expanding. Perhaps most recognized among them are: Brandy (that is Brandy Norwood) of McComb, Betty Everett of Greenwood, Denise Lasalle of Sidon, the Mississippi Mass Choir of the Jackson area, Dorothy Moore of Jackson, Leontyne Price of Laurel, Cassandra Wilson of Jackson, and most of the Staple Singers of Drew. Of somewhat less notoriety because they were not the stars of their group or because they appeared only briefly on the charts are: Ruby Andrews of Hollandale; Mary Wilson of Greenville, who sang with the Supremes; Jean Terrell of Belzoni, who led the Supremes for several years; Gwen Dickey of Biloxi, who led Rose Royce; Helen Curry of Clarksdale, who sang with the Independents; Melba Moore and Jo Armstead of Yazoo City; Erma Franklin of Shelby, the older sister of Aretha Franklin; Beverly Ellis of Durant; Thelma Houston of Leland; Margie Joseph of Gautier; Joyce Kennedy of Anguilla; B Angie B of Morton; and Fern Kinney and Patsy McCune of Jackson, both of whom sang with the Poppies. From a slightly earlier time period, there was: Lucille Bogan of Amory, Lil Green of the Mississippi Delta, Elizabeth Greenfield of Natchez, and the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm of Piney Woods.

An important thing of note regarding these successful musicians is that they all had to leave Mississippi in order to achieve their success. That speaks volumes about the state and opportunities for Black people. No doubt there are many more musicians who could have achieved such success were they not restrained by their environment. 

The same can be said about the possibilities of Black women in medicine, politics, business, and other areas. We hope and plan to look at them in the future; if not this year, then next Black History Month and Women History Month. 

Meanwhile, I am proud to share these comments about “my home girls.” Even more, I am proud of what they have accomplished and continue to accomplish.  I am totally proud that they are “my home girls.”    

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For Mississippians, celebrating Women’s History Month means recognizing innumerable ‘home girls’

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 5, 2022