Black Women Freedom Fighters: An Interview with Keith Gilyard and Joseph R. Fitzgerald

Louise Thompson Patterson in Berlin, 1960

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 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 planned discussion on Black Women Freedom Fighters, scheduled for February 7thwe are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Keith Gilyard is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English and African American Studies at Penn State. A two-time recipient of an American Book Award, Gilyard has passionately embraced African American expressive culture over the course of his career as a poet, scholar, and educator. As a faculty member at Medgar Evers College-CUNY, Gilyard helped to establish (1986) the National Black Writers Conference, now convened biennially at that venue. He served as director of the Writing Program at Syracuse University (1995-1999) and as interim chair of the Department of African American Studies at the same university (1996-1997). Upon his arrival at Penn State in 1999, he began planning the seventeenth Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, which was held during the summer of 2001 around the theme “American Ethnic Rhetorics.” Gilyard has authored, edited, or co-edited twenty books, including Let’s Flip the Script: An African American Discourse on Language, Literature, and Learning (1996), John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism (2010), and Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle for Justice (2017).

Joseph R. Fitzgerald is an assistant professor of history and political science at Cabrini University, where he also coordinates its Black Studies program. He earned a BA, MA, and PhD in Black Studies, and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies. Fitzgerald specializes in critical race feminism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Waves of the modern Black Liberation Movement. His biography of Gloria Richardson, The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation, was published in December 2018. Follow him on Twitter @StrugIsEternal.

CBFS: You both have written biographies of women in the Black freedom struggle. Can you tell us a bit about your books and how you came to write about these women?

Keith Gilyard: Louise Thompson Patterson was a brilliant and courageous freedom fighter. She was involved in social movements from the 1920s to the 1990s. I had a sense of her contributions because I often came across her name when reading accounts of major literary and political figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison, Claudia Jones, Thyra Edwards, and of course, Wallace Thurman, to whom she was married briefly, and William Patterson, her husband of forty years. She was to me a serial character in a large narrative of the Black Freedom Struggle.

In fact, in my biography on John Oliver Killens, I wrote about her as well. Killens penned a tribute titled “In the Great Tradition of Black Womanhood” that he delivered at her retirement party. But even while researching that book, I didn’t really have eyes, so to speak, on Louise. In fact, I included a photograph in which she appears with Du Bois, Robeson, Alphaeus Hunton, and Dorothy Hunton. I named those four in the caption but not Louise because I could not identify her at the time. After the Killens book was published, I did finally (guiltily) identify her visually and began to read more about her. However, I did not commit to writing the biography until I received a call from her daughter Mary Louise. She was encouraging—probably my greatest personal benefit in writing the book was to get to know her—and I got to work.

Joseph R. Fitzgerald: The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation is essentially an intellectual history of a transitional leader between the Civil Rights and Black Power waves of the modern Black Liberation Movement. Richardson is someone who has been left out of the history despite her incredibly important roles in both. She is a Black radical who firmly believes in Black people’s right to first-class citizenship both in law and practice, and she worked toward that goal back in the mid-1960s as part of the local civil rights campaign known as the Cambridge Movement on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as well as in the north as a founder of the Black Power organization called ACT.

The Cambridge Movement was a social justice campaign that focused on jobs, housing, quality public school education, and healthcare, and due to white people’s persistent and often violent responses to it, Maryland’s governor ultimately sent the National Guard to Cambridge for one of the longest deployments in U.S. history. National and regional newspapers and other media outlets covered Cambridge’s racial crisis extensively, as well as the Cambridge Movement’s leader, Gloria Richardson. Consequently, Americans from all walks of life began viewing her as Civil Rights leader with national influence and importance, and younger Black Power activists considered her a role model.

Richardson’s elders taught her to serve her Black community. Her university professors—who included intellectual giants such as Sterling Brown, Rayford Logan, and E. Franklin Frazier—expected her to use her intellect and education to advance Black liberation. She blended these with her uncompromising vision for achieving a freedom for all Black people and worked toward this goal by using her outstanding leadership and negotiation abilities to break the back of the white power structure in Cambridge.

CBFS: Can you share a favorite story from your research, something from these women’s lives that our readers might not be familiar with?

Keith Gilyard: It is fairly well known that Louise Thompson Patterson served as a secretary to Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and found herself in the middle of the dispute between the two about the authorship of the play Mule Bone. Less known are the threats Hurston made to acquaintances about what she was going to do to Louise, who sided with Hughes, the next time she saw her. The next time was in a dance hall. Louise spotted Hurston and warned her own dance partner that things could get hectic. But Hurston slipped up behind her and gave her an affectionate hug. It was the last time they saw each other.

I also remain fascinated about her time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In Madrid, she was in the middle of a war zone. Today we would call her an embedded correspondent. She was in the trenches with soldiers. During their rest periods, the soldiers were eager to share their notebooks with Louise, who knew Spanish fairly well and was ever the questioner and educator. Those sessions ended when the soldiers had to pick up their rifles and resume combat. One of my favorite stories is not in the book. When I read the archives of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, the militant, Black-feminist group that Louise founded with Beah Richards, Charlotta Bass and others, I discovered that on the evening that I was born in Harlem the Sojourners were meeting only a few blocks away.

Joseph R. Fitzgerald: The interviewing process itself, along with attending events where Richardson was present, made it possible for me to learn about so many interesting and important events in Richardson’s life. In late February of 2008, Washington College in Maryland was holding its George Washington’s Birthday Convocation. Richardson and two others—civil rights scholar Taylor Branch, and retired United States Senator Birch Bayh—were being awarded honorary doctorates for their public service on behalf of American democracy.

In her acceptance speech, Richardson talked about the fact that in the early 1960s, young people, from elementary school through high school and college, were the tip of a spear that had punctured America’s malignant tumor of white supremacy. These young people’s initiative and dedication to building a better nation were, Richardson stated, the reasons why she entered the Movement. Furthermore, she noted, those students’ actions are the real reason why anyone even knows about her.

In keeping with her belief that young people are the most important force for change in this nation, Richardson challenged Washington College’s student body to confront systems of power that seek to limit human rights and she targeted the federal government as a main culprit. She called out the “crypto-fascist” Patriot Act as a great threat to individual freedom because it limited a person’s right of habeas corpus, and then Richardson moved on to her assessment of the government’s oversight of the financial industry. She spoke about the sub-prime mortgage “crisis” and said it was nothing but “a Ponzi scheme, backed by Wall Street grading agencies.” Richardson’s speech was well-received by an audience who appreciated her candid assessment of the government’s failure to protect its citizenry and provided the audience with an insight into Richardson’s keen analysis of current events.

CBFS: Given the continuing struggles for Black liberation today, how does the history of these women’s lives help us understand our world today or act to change it?

Keith Gilyard: For better or worse, everything is blueprint. The example can inspire others, and it can be replicated. More important, it can be a springboard toward improved models. Louise Thompson Patterson proffered an intersectional analysis of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation that remains relevant as the masses of Black people continue to struggle under burdens of imposed social inequality. Moreover, she demonstrated that through study, organizing, advocacy, sacrifice, and fortitude everyday people possess the agency to advance liberation efforts. Her final hope was that people build on her progressive legacy and accomplish more than she could. I think she was sure that could happen.

Joseph R. Fitzgerald: I wrote this biography of Gloria Richardson as a guidebook of sorts for today’s activists to show them that they should consider replicating the type of grassroots, group-centered, and non-ideological approach to human rights work that Richardson used. Foremost among this is the expectation that all successful human rights work arises from local, grassroots struggles consisting of people who know better than anyone else what their issues are and how they should be addressed. The grassroots people should be the ones driving their freedom campaigns and no one—be they a politician, business person, entertainer, religious leader, or media “anointed” or self-appointed spokesperson—should expect local people to subordinate their goals to those of outside people or organizations.

The timeless lesson here is that in the Twenty-First Century, activists in local struggles will have to continue to focus on their own problems that, incidentally, may not be present across the entire nation. What is an issue for people in Albany, New York may not be so for people in Albany, Georgia. Therefore, it is critically important that as people struggle for justice, they do not apply a one-size-fits-all approach to their work. Richardson’s story shows today’s activists the value of knowing this important fact.

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