Tales of Harriet Tubman, the pistol-packing Underground Railroad conductor, and of antislavery and women's activist Sojourner Truth abound. But what of journalists Ida B. Wells and Mary Ann Shadd Cary or the exploits of Pony Express rider Mary Fields?
As the historical role of blacks has been long obscured, so have the efforts and accomplishments of black women remained largely unchronicled.
Recently, however, attention has focused on these women through the newly formed black women's archives, symposiums, exhibitions and publications that have begun illuminating their achievements both nationally and in the District:
"Black women and their organizations were at the backbone of the black community . . . in terms of survival issues," said Lawrence E. Gary, director of the Howard University Institute for Urban Affairs, which has compiled a study profiling 10 "unknown" black District women from 1870 to 1970.
Black women in history are "still anonymous, still invisible," said historian Bettye Collier-Thomas, director of the Mary McCloud Bethune Museum-National Archives for Black Women, which has published a teaching kit featuring 20 black women of national signifigance.
It is imperative to recognize that "their accomplishments were threaded through the whole life of Washington in particular," she said.
Some, such as civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell, gained national prominence. But others, such as educator Anna Julia Cooper, have received little acclaim.
While maintaining alliances with whites in suffrage and philanthropic organizations, black women launched a network of self-help groups in the mid-1890s. Known as the clubwomen's movement, it included organizations bearing such labels as the New Era Club, the Social Purity League and the Colored Women's League of the District. This network addressed issues ranging from Georgia's convict-release programs to providing sanitation services for poor blacks in the District.
When occasion demanded, they mustered impressive political strength, as in the vehement post-World War I protest that crushed a Senate measure, initiated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to erect a "Mammy Monument."
"These were not just ladies playing cards. These women were serious," said historian Louise Hutchinson of the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, which is updating its bicentennial year traveling exhibition on the lives of 150 black American women.
Bostonian Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin is credited with starting the club movement. Outraged by racist attacks upon blacks by the press, she issued a national appeal in 1895, urging black women to unite to repel "a direct attack upon us, our husbands and our homes."
In July 1896, the first conference of the National Federation of Afro-American Women met in the 19th Street Baptist Church in Northwest Washington. The conferees, including charity worker Julia West Hamilton, Cooper, Tubman and Rosetta Douglass Sprague, Frederick Douglass' daughter, established the still-active National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and elected Mary Church Terrell as president.
Hutchinson said the women's national prominence often depended upon "having a husband who was politically inclined and who was backing them."
Terrell "benefited greatly from being 'the wife of' Robert Terrell, the first black District Court judge in the city , while Anna Cooper, who worked closely with Mrs. Terrell, was a widow," she said.
Because this double standard cut across racial barriers in Washington of the 1870s, women's rights were closely linked to black enfranchisement, and black club leaders began addressing suffrage assemblies.
In post-Civil War Washington, two separate black societies emerged. One was a rising middle class of professionals whose values held education to be the key to advancement. The other, a group of illiterate and impoverished former slaves, lived in areas where crime and disease were endemic.
Into this divided black District of Columbia came widow Mary Ann Shadd Cary to attend Howard University Law School. The daughter of free Delaware blacks who founded an integrated school and an antebellum antislavery newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, in Canada, Cary had recruited blacks for the Union Army after her husband's death.
In Washington, she was active in the suffrage movement and, among other efforts, urged the House Judiciary Committee to extend voting rights to District black women.
Founder of the Provincial Union and the Colored Women's Progressive Franchise Association, Cary encouraged black women to become entrepreneurs, calling for cooperatives, banks and a stock company with women in control.
Julia West Hamilton, wife of a minister and teacher and founder of the Phyllis Wheatly YWCA in 1930, joined the Department of the Potomoc Women's Relief Corps, which aided elderly Union veterans. She held office in the Women's Republican League and eventually served as the first chairwoman of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church trustees board.
Former school teacher Sarah Iredell Fleetwood was a charter member of the Colored Women's League of D.C., which provided black mothers with nurseries, kindergartens and sanitation committees for alley dwellings, the shanties behind the residences on major streets. She later became administrator of Freedmen's Hospital Nursing Training School and the first black woman appointed to the District's Nurses Examining Board.
Many projects pioneered by the clubs were later incorporated into existing District programs. For example, Anna Evans Murray, who headed the kindergarten committee of the Colored Women's League, led a successful lobbying effort to secure a $12,000 federal appropriation to introduce kindergarten classes in the D.C. Public Schools in 1898.
Although educated black women came to outnumber the "folk heroines" of Tubman and Truth in the 1890s as spokeswomen for black concerns, not all women's leaders had middle-class roots.
Grass-roots philanthropic groups, such as the National Sewing Council under the direction of Mary Hill Watson Webster, enabled blacks holding nonprofessional jobs to contribute to the welfare of the community. Despite the lack of a formal education, Webster helped establish vocational training programs, set up a Home for the Colored Aged and provided clothes, food and fuel in the District and Africa.
Providing basic necessities was the primary goal of these clubs, but cultural enhancement was not ignored. Around the turn of the century, Aleila Amos Pendelton founded two emergency relief associations and was active in the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. An Anacostia resident, she also published articles on Pan-Africanism and black history.
While noted scholars W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington carried on their historic turn-of-the-century debate over the benefits of a classical versus a technical education for blacks, black women in the District were advancing both methods.
Many intellectuals and artists, such as Harriet Gibbs Marshall, devoted their lives to cultural pursuits. The first black woman to earn a bachelor of arts degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Marshall founded the Washington Conservatory of Music in 1903 and the National Negro Music Center in 1937. Living for a time in Haiti, she wrote a book, "The Story of Haiti," and cofounded an industrial school.
Among efforts to provide basic learning and vocational training, educator Nannie Helen Burroughs founded what later became the National Trades and Professional School. Burroughs called the institution the "School of the 3 Bs," with concentration on the Bible, the bath and the broom as tools for social and economic advancement.
During the Depression, several charitable houses arose to fill the void left in the black community by "white-only" organizations. In 1931, Dr. Ionia Rollin Whipper established a home for unwed mothers that for more than 20 years was the only District facility offering housing, prenatal care, child-care instruction and social counseling to black girls.
In 1930, Marion Conover Hope helped organize Southeast Neighborhood House. Inspired by the segregationist policy of Friendship House, a Capital Hill settlement house, she developed community projects, including home improvement contests, a community newsletter, summer schools and health education groups.
Hope, who died in 1974, was a founding member of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and was instrumental in designing the Anacostia Community School Project, the first decentralized school in the District.
Many of the District's black female activists remained involved throughout their lives. Some, such as Cary and Hope, after successfully juggling career, family and community service, returned to school to begin new careers in their sixties.
Others, such as Terrell, continued to excel in several fields simultaneously. A noted educator, civil rights leader, author and lecturer, Terrell, at age 89, was part of the successful desegregation suit against Washington's Thompson Restaurant chain in the 1950s.
These women, only a few among the many whose accomplishments remain veiled in anonymity, lived their lives by the creed of Anna Julia Cooper:
"When and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.