There was no gavel. No one had to call the meeting to order. The singing and prayers were strong but short. The 500 women sitting in the dimly lit auditorium at Howard University were anxious to get down to business.
For the second time in a century a Black Women's Summit has been organized by black women to define their own interests serve notice on the country's leadership that they are a power base and shape an agenda for future progress.
The first time was in 1895, a time of black advance in many areas. It was also the year the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson, declaring that "separate but equal" schools and accommodations were legal, which set the pattern and mood for the mis-emancipation of black lives.
Yesterday at the opening of the Black Women's Summit 1981, the organizers -- Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), Mona Bailey, president of the 100,000-member Delta Sigma Theta sorority and Gloria Scott, a vice president of Clark College in Atlanta -- harked back to the last century's change of fortunes and repeatedly spoke of the "negative impact" of today's conservative mood and the need for black control of black lives. Presently, said Chisholm, there's a "change away from issues and circumstances that affect black women . . . we have to look within our own resources. No longer can we indulge in committees, meetings and seminars. We must come out of any slumber."
"America must be turned around from black oppression . . . from a sophisticated march back into the 19th century led by self-proclaimed gatekeepers of a Moral Majority masquerade," said Bailey.
More than 60 women's groups, from the high-powered national organizations to the grass-roots community groups, helped form the agenda of the conference. A survey showed of concerns centered around legislation, employment, economic development, education, physical and mental health and aging -- priorities almost identical to those a century ago. At the end of the two days, the organizers hope to create a network of interaction, offer follow-up programs on specific issues and show the cohesiveness of a political force.
These women represent the 13.5 million minority women in the United States who have been the benefactors of the civil rights and feminist struggles of the last two decades. More than 50 percent of all black women work, a number that has increased in the last decade, but 64 percent are concentrated in service and clerical jobs. In 1979 black women had an overall 12.3 percent unemployment rate, twice that of white women; the unemployment rate among black teen-age women is nearly 40 percent.Despite advances in many professions, Labor Department statistics show that black women still face the double whammy of sex and racial discrimination in the job hunt, earning less than everyone else in the labor force.
The summit overlaps with the opening of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority convention, which will attract 5,000 people over the next five days. Mona Bailey, an organizer of both assemblies, said the challenge was to go beyond strategy sessions to implementation. She is impatient with the normal fallout of conventions. "We have to talk about plans, move beyond talking. We have to raise the issues, identify the strategies, and devise follow-up and monitoring. Remember the Richmond conference of black leaders last winter? What has happened? I'm not attempting to put down the efforts. But we come back for Black Caucus weekend as we go home again."
As a leader of a financially solvent and politically active group, Bailey can bring pressure on the organizations of black leaders. And she is sensitive to the criticism from many parts of the black community that black leaders are out of touch. "It doesn't matter what we are leaders think, if people have that preception that we aren't doing anything. They say they can't get direction. The gap is there. We have to find ways to get information and access to that community."
"I need a model on mainstreaming black women into professional positions," said Johnette J. Williams, a university instructor from Scottsdale, Ariz., who joined the conference. Less than one percent of the population of Scottsdale is minority. The majority, said Williams, are in clerical jobs. "There's a real need for a coalition of black women at home."
Edna Farquharson Downey used the example of her 83-year-old mother-in-law to illustrate the problems facing the older black woman. "I can see the administration's policies' effect with her. She got a little increase on her social security check and she was happy. Then when she heard about the social security changes, she actually panicked," said Downey, a retired New York City corrections officer who now works with senior citizens' groups. "I feel it's important for black women to stick together, to help one another, inform one another and reassure one another."
Norma Sermon, who works with exceptional children, said the cuts of Title I reading and math programs, and other funds for free school lunches, were concerns she had brought from Pollocksville, N.C. "Seventy-six percent of our kids are on free lunch. There's even a possibility the cafeterias wouldn't open and that's all a loss of jobs in those areas," said Sermon. "I need some suggestions on grass-roots organization, so the political gains in our county wouldn't be lost. With the undercurrent of racism, last election we lost two black members of the board of education. Some blacks have gotten too comfortable and we have to develop new strategies."