Black Women and Economic Self-Determination: A CBFS Interview

The Virginia Women’s Monument depicting Sarah Garland Boyd Jones (Left) and Maggie L. Walker (right) (Wikimedia Commons)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on “Financing Freedom: Black Women and Economic Self-Determination” scheduled for December 7th, we are highlighting the scholarship of the guests.

Crystal Moten ​​is a historian who specializes in 20th Century United States and Women’s/Gender History with a specialization in African American Women’s History. Her research examines Black women’s struggles for economic justice in the 20th century urban north. Formerly a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, she now works as Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Obama Presidential Center Museum in Chicago, IL.

Shennette Garrett-Scott is a historian of gender, race, and capitalism. Her award-winning first book Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal (Columbia University Press) is the first full-length history of finance capitalism that centers black women and the banking institutions and networks they built from the eve of the Civil War to the Great Depression.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What intervention does your work make in the study of Black freedom movement history and Black women’s economic self-determination?

Crystal Moten (CM): Continually Working: Black Women, Community Intellectualism, and Economic Justice in Postwar Milwaukee (Vanderbilt University Press), makes three important interventions. Firstly, it brings to the fore the struggle for economic justice, specifically, good jobs during the civil rights movement.  Heretofore, studies of civil rights activism have emphasized political representation, desegregation, and voting rights, neglecting the workplace (or privileging union activism) as a site of struggle. Secondly, the book focuses on the urban Midwest, specifically the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to emphasize the importance of geographical diversity when understanding Black freedom movement history. Geographically, Milwaukee lay in the heart of the United States’ industrial core and during the mid-20th century was touted as a working-class paradise. Yet, Black working women could not access the manufacturing or clerical jobs that gave the city this reputation. They continually labored in the back, at the bottom, and out of sight. Finally, in considering the fight for good jobs, the book posits Black working women as strategists who came together to develop creative solutions to the economic injustice they experienced. In critiquing unequal business practices; calling out racist employers; and compelling the state to respond to their complaints they made plain their vision for jobs justice.

Shennette Garrett-Scott (SGS): My mentor Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker always said, “Pay attention the money.” In centering the ways Black women paid attention to money, they refined their intersectional critique of the U.S. political economy. Black women’s wide organizational networks traversed a broad range of classes to address economic rights, including creating jobs, supporting women’s philanthropy, increasing women’s financial literacy and property ownership, and even criticizing democratic capitalism. Scholars certainly have focused attention on Black women’s fundraising and philanthropy as integral to the success of the Black freedom movement. Their economic backing ensured a steady stream of funding and support that made the movement possible. Their fundraising activities encompassed club membership fees, raffles, bake sales, pageants, and more. These social activities did more than just raise money or promote causes. They encouraged and enabled broad participation beyond movement moments like marches. Economic concerns also placed high among women’s priorities for the movement. Civil rights without economic rights was a hollow movement. Women confronted limited employment options as well as squalid housing conditions, skyrocketing rents, overpolicing, and overcrowding in segregated cities. As consumers, Black women understood more intimately than most the toll exacted from squatting in fields, waiting to be the last served, and paying higher costs for inferior goods. Focus on Black women’s economic self-determination as an integral aspect of the Black freedom movement expands attention to the ways Black women navigated the U.S. political economy in their efforts to make freedom a reality for themselves and their communities.

CBFS: How have Black feminists, womanists, and proto-feminists developed a financial praxis?

CM: Analyzing the strategies Black working women used to address economic injustice provides an opportunity to explore the group centered day-to-day intellectual activities and practices that sustained and undergirded their economic activism. As these women engaged in their activism, they came together around a set of grievances and critiques related to their specific work conditions and lack of work opportunities. Their intellectual practices supported their economic activism and centered women workers. This centering, in turn, made possible multiple ways of producing and disseminating their visions for economic justice.

SGS: Black feminists, womanists, and proto-feminists saw economic autonomy as essential to citizenship. The passbook and insurance policy joined the poll tax receipt and ballot in advancing a vision of economic autonomy and justice for working women. The women who dominate my research are women actively involved in building the infrastructure to enable a financial praxis. One example is Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934), president and founder of the St. Luke Bank, the first bank largely organized and financed by Black women. Through the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL) and St. Luke Bank, Walker linked women’s political and earning power in multiple ways. First, the IOSL and St. Luke Bank safeguarded individual and institutional resources. The IOSL provided benefits to see members through hard times, and both the IOSL and bank invested in Black communities. Under Walker’s leadership, the St. Luke Bank took as its special charge increasing Black women homeowners. The bank offered special savings and low down-payment plans for working women. IOSL councils around the country and the St. Luke Boosters, a group of handpicked women IOSL employees in Richmond, mobilized Black women homeowners to register to vote, pay their poll taxes, and lobby around municipal issues important to Black communities, such as school funding and community improvements. In addition to residential mortgages, the bank also funded building and purchasing meeting halls. In large cities like Harlem, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and in smaller towns like Lynchburg, Virginia, the St. Luke meeting halls provided a space for diverse community groups, trade unions, and churches to meet, organize, debate, and coordinate community initiatives. Walker and the IOSL highlight a Black women’s financial praxis that not only supported but also enabled women’s political culture.

CBFS: In the wake of critiques of the non-profit industrial complex, what can these histories teach us about Black women’s economic self-determination and movement financing today?

CM: An example from Continually Working is especially relevant here. In 1950, after nearly two decades of developing and supporting a thriving program for Black women at the Milwaukee Young Women’s Christian Association (MYWCA), all the Black workers resigned. They resigned because the MYWCA refused to live up to and live out its principles. In addition to investing in a permanent programmatic home on Milwaukee’s north side, where the majority of African Americans in the city lived, the organization also refused to pay Black workers the same salaries as white employees doing the same jobs. After raising their critiques internally through the appropriate channels and learning that the MYWCA would maintain the status quo, the Black workers refused to be mistreated and have their labor devalued. Not only did they resign, but they told their story to the Chicago Defender, which ran a scathing article on the front page about the MYWCA’s discriminatory programmatic and labor practices. While change did not occur overnight after their resignation, Black Y women’s actions contributed to an internal reckoning within the organization eventually leading to a change in leadership and the organization’s commitment to joining with the national YWCA in an imperative to eliminate racism.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.