"I just handed over about 15 boxes full of our old records to the archives," said Carolyn Reed, executive director of the National Committee on Household Employment.
"There are about 50 more boxes coming. We were about to move our offices and I decided to pitch the stuff out. I thought it was garbage. I mentioned it to one of the women at a black history conference last July and she said, 'Don't throw it out. Send it to us -- we want your garbage.' I hadn't stopped to think how important those records might be. That's how our history has been lost."
New disciplines require new methodology and new source materials. That was one of the messages at yesterday's opening sessions of the first National Scholary Research Conference on Black Women at the Shoreham Americana where more than 1,000 have gathered to hear more than 70 scholars over the two-day period.
The conference is sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women, Inc., which is holding the program in conjunction with its 39th annual convention. The conference itself is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The kickoff for the conference was the official opening Sunday of the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum and the National Archives for Black Women's History.
Supported by the NCNW, and housed in Bethune's last official Washington residence, the archives is the first repository in the United States devoted entirely to decumenting black women's history. All those at the conference believe it's about time; some think it is almost too late.
"We have to restore the records and collect them. Some are already lost forever," said Gerda Lerner, professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College. "Black women's hitory is off to a late start and I think they're entitled to compensatory funding."
Lerner was joined by Bobby Austin, sociologist and editor of the National Urban League Review, and Sharon Harley, who teaches in the department of Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland.
"We have to change the questions," said Lerner. "We have to ask the questions that will give the information we need to find the women. Traditionally, historians turn to the official records and newspapers to find out about the leaders in a society, their contributions and influence.
"The leaders were the ones who were elected to office, who were written about in the newspapers. Up through the 19th century, women didn't hold office nor were they in the papers -- it was considered disgraceful for a woman to have her name in print.
"So the traditional methodology didn't turn up women of influence and that led some to believe they did not play significant roles in the social movements of the time. Once you ask the right questions of different materials, however, you see them in there founding orphanages, leading the anti-slavery movement and contributing to social welfare in all kinds of ways."
"It is impossible to know the history of blacks without knowing the history of black women," Sharon Harley said."And we must do more expanded studies of that society. We are finding ways to get to the experiences of the non-elite.
"Right now our concern is with black women. We are overcompensating for the lack of studies. We will look at the larger society of blacks later," said Harley, echoing Lerner's earlier statement that it is important to focus on women first, then integrate them into the whole.
As Lerner put, "You can't do justice to black women if they are subsumed under black history alone."
Neither, added Bobby Austin, can you separate black women from black culture. What's more, black culture cannot be separated from the whole. "Blacks," he said to the loudest applause of the day, "are not peripheral to American history, we are the centerpiece of the culture."