Trailblazing the Field: On Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s Work in Black Women’s History

*This post is part of our online forum  organized by Stephen G. Hall honoring the life and work of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a pioneering scholar in the field of African American women’s history.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn at Temperance and Woman Suffrage Event (Flickr: U.S. National Archives)

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn was a field-shaping scholar who used her career to advance historical narratives on Black women. From her graduate career until her years as a Professor Emerita, she explored the lives of Black women and helped create several academic organizations meant to expand our knowledge of understudied people and groups. Her multifaceted role in the development of Black women’s history — through scholarship, collaborations, and institution-building — is one of her most important legacies.

In my view, Dr. Terborg-Penn’s most important contribution to the field came with her integral involvement in the development of the field of Black women’s history and in the institutionalization of the field with the founding of the Association of Black Women’s Historians. Prior to the development of Black women’s history, Black women’s lives were not often found at the centers of African American, United States, or women’s histories. The advent of Black women’s history marked a shift in the dominant historical narrative of the African American experience. Prior to the 1980s, a majority of scholarship on the Black experience was written by and about Black men. While Black women’s experiences were missing from the mainstream narrative, the ever-expanding field of African American history also suffered from a dearth of scholarship on Black women. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, scholars like Darlene Clark Hine, Paula Giddings, Angela Davis, Jacqueline Jones, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Sharon Harley, Sylvia Jacobs, Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Elsa Barkley Brown, Nell Irvin Painter, Mary Frances Berry, and many others made significant interventions into the historical narrative. Chronicling the contributions and experiences of Black women of all class levels became the focus of a new subfield of African American history. 1

This new subfield expanded the narratives surrounding Black women’s lives and contributions by including them in stories they were excluded from in the traditional historiography and by telling unique stories related to Black women in particular. Importantly, Black women historians intervened into several literatures that excluded Black women’s contributions, including general United States history as well as many texts published as African American history. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Black women historians, some working alone, cloistered in white universities set the stage for an emerging Black woman-centric literature during an important period for Black feminist activists and scholars too. In the midst of this burgeoning subfield, which would eventually become a field of its own, Dr. Terborg-Penn along with Eleanor Smith and Elizabeth Parker founded the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) in 1979. The ABWH emerged at a critical moment. Black women historians needed professional support and a formal network. The organization also validated the growing field of Black women’s history by supporting scholars and encouraging the study of Black women. For Dr. Terborg-Penn, her involvement in the founding of the ABWH was just one of many examples of her collaborative spirit.

During her graduate study at Howard University, Terborg-Penn began her decades of collaborative scholarly efforts. As a graduate student, she and Sharon Harley, a pioneering scholar in her own right, began work on the first edition of their book The Afro-American Women: Struggles and Images, which was published in 1978. In the “Introduction to the 1997 Edition,” Harley and Terborg-Penn describe the book as “the first scholarly collection of essays about African American women’s lives which placed us in a historical perspective … [which] marked the beginning of a new field of intellectual scholarship — Black Women’s History.”2 In this edited collection, the contributing scholars provided general overviews of Black women’s place in American history and several biographical sketches of Black women activists. The collected essays also view the lives of Black women through both a gendered and racialized analysis. In this volume, Terborg-Penn contributed two articles, “Discrimination Against Afro-American Women in the Woman’s Movement, 1830-1920” and “Black Male Perspectives on the Nineteenth Century Woman.” The first article was a precursor to her 1998 book African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. The Afro-American Woman helped establish the field of Black women’s history and remains central to understanding the historiographical trajectory of the field.

As both a scholar and an institution builder, Terborg-Penn played an integral role in the development of serious historical engagement with the lives, thoughts, and contributions of Black women. Beyond her work in the pivotal early years of Black women’s history, Terborg-Penn also helped to preserve a strong tradition during her years as a faculty member and graduate program director in the Department of History at Morgan State University. This is where all of Dr. Terborg-Penn’s contributions come together for me. As a faculty member at Morgan and as a historian who primarily researches Black women, Dr. Terborg-Penn’s pioneering work and career has laid the groundwork for this generation of Black women historians. As the field of Black women’s history emerged, scholars primarily focused on exceptional Black women. In recent years, the scope of study has expanded to include women engaged in the underground economy, working-class women’s activism, and biographical accounts of many other known and previously unknown Black women, among other subjects. In the last two decades a more complete, dynamic, and multilayered portrait of Black women’s lives, thoughts, and desires has emerged in large part due to an increase in Black women professional historians and their interest in uncovering Black women’s lives. The ABWH has helped nurture this increase in scholars and scholarship.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn devoted the bulk of her career to championing the inclusion of Black women in the historical profession and narrative. Her pioneering scholarship, work with the ABWH, and her longtime career at Morgan State University paved the way for other Black women historians to enter the field and add to a more complete history of Black women in this country. The histories that emerged at the beginning of the Black women’s history movement and that continue to emerge highlight the importance of privileging Black women’s perspectives. Without them, common narratives that exclude Black perspectives or assume that there is no variety in the American experience may persist. Even after forty years of historical scholarship that centers Black women’s lives, mainstream narratives continue to deny the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn left a legacy in her scholarship for current and future generations. It is imperative that we continue to build a literature and praxis that furthers our historical understanding Black women’s lives.

  1. Black women wrote about themselves long before scholars became interested in their stories. Novels, autobiographies, and scholarly texts by Maya Angelou, Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Ellen Watson Harper, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Moody, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Wilson, and many, many others are rich sources of material on Black women. Scholarly discussion of Black women began well before the 1970s. These texts include The Black Woman of the South: Her Neglects and Her Needs (1883), Alexander Crummell; The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Darkwater (1920), W.E.B. Du Bois; “The Negro Woman,” (1949) Herbert Aptheker; The Negro Woman’s College Education (1956), “The American Negro Woman” (1966), Jeanne L. Noble. Also see magazines and journals like The Black Scholar, The Journal of Negro History, The Crisis, Ebony, Essence, Jet, and other publications.
  2. Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. “Introduction to the 1997 Edition,” in The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images, eds. Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1997), iii-iv.
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Jewell Debnam

Jewell C. Debnam is an Assistant Professor in the History, Geography, and Museum Studies department at Morgan State University. Her research focuses on African American and women's labor and working class history. Debnam has a PhD from Michigan State University where she wrote a dissertation titled Black Women and the Charleston Hospital Workers' Strike of 1969. She has published in journals such as Souls, the Journal of African American History, and the Journal of Southern History.

Comments on “Trailblazing the Field: On Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s Work in Black Women’s History

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    May I call your attention to Sarah E. Wright, a pioneer in many respects of the African-American
    freedom movement, whose classic novel This Child’s Gonna Live was originally published 50
    years ago to enormous critical acclaim. She is represented in the African-American Museum of
    History and Culture in the exhibit on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She, along with John O.
    Killens, and other African-American artists was excluded from Gates’ anthology of African-
    American writers because of their left-wing views. While she did not leave a large body of work,
    she deserves to occupy a front-rank place in U.S. literature on the basis of her novel alone.
    There are many fascinating elements of her life, including being one of the first, if not the first
    Black woman in modern times to stop straightening her hair — a decade before the Black is Beautiful
    movement. Her archives are stored at Emery University. Should you wish further information, I
    as her husband of 50 years am entirely at your disposal. My name is Joseph Kaye, email address

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