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As Women’s History Month wraps, the annual conference that examines the District’s past highlighted women who had non-traditional roles during the pre-civil rights era in the political and social arenas.
On March 25, 40 people listened to scholars talk about “The Politics of Remembrance: Women in DC History” at the 49th annual DC History Conference held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Northwest.
Three scholars spoke on projects they were working on related to how women in the 19th and early and middle 20th centuries in the District fought for respect and recognition.
The first speaker, University of Maryland doctoral student Alisa Hardy, elaborated on the topic “The Construction of the Black Mammy Monument and Lost Cause Ideologies.” Hardy said in the early 1920s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) proposed the construction of a Black “mammy” monument in the District. The purpose of the monument, according to the UDC, was to remember the Black female servants who joyfully served their masters and mistresses during slavery.
“Mammy was the dominant stereotype of Black women during slavery,” Hardy said. “Mississippi Sen. John Williams (D) obliged the UDC and sponsored a bill authorizing the mammy monument. However, the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP fought this bill and the idea.”
On an overhead projector, Hardy showed letters from UDC members Mary Solari and Gilliland Aston and others opposing it from Hallie Brown Quinn and Mary Church Terrell. Quinn and Terrell refuted the UDC’s perception of slavery as benevolent toward the enslaved and talked about its brutality and inhumanity. The idea eventually was shelved and the legislation never moved forward, Hardy said.
Historian Randolph Harris, who resides in Lancaster, Pennsylvania., spoke on the topic, “Lydia Hamilton-Smith: A Remarkable Black Businesswoman in a Tale of Two Cities.” Harris said Smith navigated the complexities of 19th-century America with few civil or legal rights. He said Smith became the property manager and confidant of U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Pennsylvania) for the last 20 years of life in Lancaster and in the District.
Harris said the pair showed a commitment to equality of races and genders during a time when that was rare and rejected ideas that relegated women to inferior status. He said Stevens authored a bill on Dec. 28, 1858, that granted women the right to vote but it never moved legislatively.
When Stevens died in 1868, his will designated $5,000 for Smith. Using that gift, Smith bought property from Stevens’ estate. Harris said Smith died in the District on Feb. 14, 1884.
Susan Ferentinos, a researcher and writer, presented “The LGBTQ Significance of Lucy Diggs Slowe: African American Educational Leader.” Slowe was appointed the first dean of women at Howard University in 1922 and as a student, was a founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc in 1908. Ferentinos points out that Slowe lived with her partner, Mary Burrill, a playwright and teacher in the District’s segregated school system for over 20 years. She also said Slowe had a tough time working at Howard University.
“Slowe and Howard University President Mordecai Johnson had an antagonistic relationship,” Ferentinos said. “She refused to quit under pressure from Johnson. Johnson wanted her to move to campus. The fight to live off campus was very stressful for Slowe.”
Ferentinos said Slowe died at the age of 53 in 1937 and speculated that the stressful battle with Johnson contributed to her death.