The Untold Stories of Three Black Women Activists

formation Three biographers of black female activists recently got together at Bowdoin to discuss the commonalities and differences in the historical figures they study.

Jen Scanlon, professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Bowdoin and the interim dean for academic affairs, is the author of the first biography on Anna Arnold Hedgeman (1899-1990). Sherie Randolph, associate professor of history at Georgia Institute of Technology, is the first biographer of Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916-2000), and Jeanne Theoharis, distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College, CUNY, is an expert on Rosa Parks (1913-2005).

Their conversation was moderated by Judith Casselberry, associate professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College.

The panelists pointed out the discrepancy between how history has treated Parks and how it has treated Hedegman and Kennedy. While Hedgeman and Kennedy are largely unknown, Parks has become an internationally recognized symbol for the civil rights movement. Even so, many people’s knowledge of Parks is limited to a single act of protest on a Montgomery bus. Meanwhile, her long career as a dedicated activist is less understood.


Anna Arnold Hedgeman should be a household name in the U.S.,” Jen Scanlon said. “Anna was a remarkable civil rights and feminist leader through the 20th century. She was a person of many firsts and onlys.” Hedgeman was the first black graduate of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. She was the first woman to be appointed to a mayoral cabinet in New York City. She was the only woman on the organizing committee of the 1963 March on Washington, and in that role, she persuaded 40,000 white people to march. In her lifetime, she also worked hard to desegregate churches. “She so believed desegregation and Christianity were linked,” Scanlon said.

Flo Kennedy was a black feminist lawyer who earned her degree from Colombia Law School. She helped overturn abortion laws, setting a precedent for a legal strategy used in the Roe vs. Wade case. “She was a lawyer for many black power activists,” Randolph continued. Kennedy was also the founder of several radical and predominantly white feminist organizations, as well as a founding member of the National Organization for Women. “Flo represents what we now call intersectionality,” Randolph said, in that she fought against racism, as well as against sexism and homophobia.

“My students call Rosa Parks the bus lady,” Theoharis began. “The version we learn in elementary school is that she was tired. She was old. It was a one-day thing; she was a one-note wonder.” In fact, when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955, Parks was 42 and had been a civil rights activist for a decade. She helped transform NAACP’s Montgomery, Ala., chapter into a forceful group that focused on voter registration and criminal justice. Later, after she had moved to Detroit, Parks fought for economic justice and housing rights, and against police brutality. Yet, the extent and complexity of her career is often overlooked in classrooms. “The whole scope of her life raises questions about what we learn and why we learn what we learn,” Theoharis said.

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Left to right: Judith Casselberry, Jen Scanlon, Sherie Randolph, and Jeanne Theoharis

Moderator Judith Casselberry launched the discussion by posing a question for the sake of the largely student audience, asking the panelists what students can learn from these women about their own activism.

According to Randolph, Flo Kennedy was skilled at working with the media, turning reporters away from the mainstream conversation around racism and toward untold stories. She organized attention-getting demonstrations, and once the press had arrived, she and other activists would use the opportunity to articulate their views. “You see Black Lives leaders emulating that in many ways,” Randolph said, staging protests that capture the media’s attention and helping to transform the national dialogue around race in the U.S.

For Theoharis, Parks exemplifies the importance of persistence—the value of pushing on with one’s work through discouragement and weariness. Parks slogged away for equal rights for years with little impact. When she refused to give up her bus seat, she had no idea whether it would make a difference. “She was feeling burned out, she was feeling like she might not see change in her lifetime,” Theoharis said. “But at some moment, things do change and history moves.” Though the spirits of today’s student activists might at times get worn, Theoharis encouraged them to “keep walking forward.” She added, “Other people have walked forward in that same spirit.”

Scanlon said that Hedgeman experienced the tension that many activists in America experience, the feeling that this was her country and yet not her country. Grappling with this tension was “exhausting” for her, she explained. “There was one night when a white woman in an audience [asked] Hedgeman, ‘Why do you talk about race all the time?’ And she said to this woman, ‘That is a good question…think of all the things I haven’t done with my life because I have had to talk about race—and I am sick of it, but I keep doing it.'” Scanlon added, “And she kept at it, and she always believed that the United States was a work in progress, and one that needed a lot of work.”

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