Stories from the Plaza of Heroines

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

A number of departments and academic programs at Iowa State have purchased pavers to honor members of their faculty and staff or outstanding women in their field. In this issue of Voices, we feature three women honored on a paver purchased by the African-American Studies Program. These women were chosen because, according to members of the program, they "shaped the political, cultural, and social life of the U.S.; we hope that their lives and legacies will be an inspiration to all."

If you are interested in purchasing a new brick or a paver, you can use our online order form or contact the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics by calling 515-294-3181. To add a narrative or photograph for a heroine honored with an existing brick or paver, email the Catt Center at cattcntr@iastate.edu or mail your submission(s) to 309 Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, 50011.

Bessie Smith

In her lifetime, Bessie Smith was acclaimed as the "Empress of the Blues."

Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894. In her childhood, she and her brother sang on the streets of Chattanooga for tips and, as a teenager, she joined a touring minstrel show where she worked as a singer and comedian. In her travels, she met Ma Rainey, the woman known as the "Mother of the Blues," who became a lifelong friend and mentor. After leaving the show in 1913, Smith spent several years traveling and performing. During this time, she developed her distinctive singing style.

In 1923, Smith began to record for Columbia Record's "race" division, which was aimed at African-American listeners. Her records were popular and her touring shows attracted overflow crowds. Unusual for the time, Smith also performed for white audiences.

In addition to Smith's technical skill and emotional style, her popularity can be traced to the topics of her music. Her repertoire included classics such as W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." However, her own music's lyrics also documented the social life of African-Americans. Her songs focused on experiences shared by many – eviction from houses, poverty, drinking, gambling, prison-stints and sexual affairs. Her most popular recording was "Backwater Blues," in which she described the flooding of the Ohio River and its effect on a woman who lost her home to the river. Smith gave the experiences of African-American women a prominent place in her music. Autobiographical details of her life, which included two marriages and numerous male and female lovers, were reflected in her music.

With the Great Depression, Smith's career suffered and went into a decline. It became more difficult to sell records, and Columbia Records canceled her contract in 1931. Although she continued to perform, she found it difficult to earn a living through her music.

Smith was killed in an automobile accident in 1937 in Mississippi.

Sojourner Truth

Isabella Bomefree was born in 1799 in Ulster County, New York. Like her parents and her siblings, she was a slave and was owned by several different families as a child and a young adult. She grew to be a tall, strong woman who was known for her intelligence and hard work. Around 1815, she married a man named Thomas, who was also a slave, and together they had five children.

In 1827, the state of New York abolished perpetual slavery. In that year, Bomefree learned that her youngest child had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. Although she could not read or write, she retained a lawyer and successfully sued for her son's return.

She moved to New York City in 1829, where she became involved with reform work and was associated with a religious commune. After the commune broke up in the mid-1830s, she felt called to preaching. In June 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began preaching her message of God's love. Her travels took her from New York to Massachusetts to Indiana. As she preached, Truth also spoke out against slavery and for racial justice and women's equality.

Her speeches and sermons made her famous. In a speech at a women's rights meeting in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, she asserted that women of all classes and all races should receive equal treatment; it was in this speech that she delivered the famous line, "And ar'n't I a woman?"

At an end-slavery meeting in 1858, an angry crowd taunted her, claiming that she must be a man because no woman could speak as well as she did. Truth silently bared her breasts, shaming her tormentors and proving to them that an African-American woman was capable of speaking in defense of her rights.

Truth was a colleague of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. She became known for her peaceful approach to abolition and her hope for divine justice. When Douglass advocated a violent end to slavery, she replied "Frederick, is God dead?"

In the late 1850s, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she continued to work on behalf of women's rights and abolition. When the Civil War began, she worked in Washington, D.C., helping African-American refugees who had fled slavery find homes and work. After the war, she took up the cause of helping freed people settle in the western United States. She also continued her women's rights activities and work for the franchise. In 1872, she attempted to register to vote in Michigan, claiming that the 14th Amendment gave her this right.

Truth died in Battle Creek in 1883.

Ida B. Wells

Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. Her parent's experience of slavery made them champions of education and equal rights, and they passed this commitment to their children.

In 1878, Wells' parents died in a yellow fever epidemic and 16-year-old Wells took responsibility for her family. She taught in country schools and later moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where the wages were higher, taking some of her siblings with her.

In Memphis, Wells began her career as an activist. In 1884, she took a seat in the ladies' coach of a train section that was reserved for white women. When the conductor demanded that she move to the segregated car, she resisted. The conductor eventually forced her from the coach and ejected her from the train. Wells sued the railroad, charging that the train's accommodations were unequal, and she was forced to pay first-class fare for second-class accommodations. She was eventually awarded damages, but the case was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Wells continued teaching but also became a journalist. Her works, often published under the pen name of "Iola," were nationally syndicated. In 1889, she became part owner of a Memphis newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight. In her writings and editorial policy, she highlighted the poor conditions of education for African-Americans. Because of her criticism, she lost her teaching position.

In 1892, three African-American businessmen were lynched in Memphis. This lynching shocked Wells into action, and she began her life-long project of investigating the causes of lynching. She linked lynching with the economic control of African-Americans by whites and undermined the common assertion that lynching was a justified punishment for African-American men who had raped white women. When she published her arguments, the office of the Free Speech and Headlight was destroyed, and Wells went into exile from the South. She continued to speak out against lynching and went on speaking tours through the northern United States and Britain. She eventually made Chicago her home.

Wells linked work for African-American's rights with work for women's rights. She helped form the influential National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She was committed to universal suffrage and argued that African-American men and women needed to cooperate to achieve suffrage for all. In 1913, she formed the Alpha Suffrage Club and continued to criticize racial discrimination within the women's suffrage moment.

In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, owner of the Chicago Conservator newspaper. Together, they had four children in addition to his two children from his first marriage.

Throughout her life, Wells continued to work for social change and was known as a controversial and thoughtful activist. She continued to write and lecture about racial injustice, sexism, lynching and the necessity of a strong African-American community. She supported community and cultural organizations, ranging from orchestras to social reform societies, for African-Americans.

Wells died in 1931 in Chicago.