My mother and I attended a recent program in the Mayor’s Gallery at Metro Hall entitled “Kentucky Women Pushing for Civil Rights.” University of Louisville’s African-American Theatre Program did a wonderful job of presenting the stories of famous and lesser-known women who were instrumental in bringing issues of social justice and racial equality to the forefront in Kentucky.
When we think of Kentucky’s struggle for civil rights, we frequently think of wonderful men like Muhammad Ali, Lyman T. Johnson, Whitney M. Young and the Rev. Louis Coleman. As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. Both my feminist sensibilities and my many years as a social justice activist and advocate inform me that the more truthful statement is that great women are most often alongside great men rather than behind them — the dudes just get the credit.
The exhibit spotlighted some women I’m familiar with, including Mae Street Kidd and Georgia Davis Powers, two groundbreaking black women legislators. It also highlighted the work of Anne Braden, a white antiracist and longtime civil rights activist who, along with her husband Carl, was indicted and jailed in the 1950s on charges of sedition (treason, essentially) for helping a black family buy a home in Louisville’s then-segregated all white Shively neighborhood. Braden’s is a fascinating story every Louisvillian should know. Martin Luther King Jr. even praised her understanding of and commitment to the civil rights movement as a Southern white woman in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” As a young and budding activist, I was lucky enough to work with and learn from Braden as a member of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression’s youth “Masterminds” program.
There are also so many extraordinary Kentucky women whose stories were new to me. Julia Britton Hooks, I discovered, was a musician and educator born in Frankfort in 1852. Known as the “Angel of Beale Street” for her work in helping the poor and disenfranchised black people of Memphis, Hooks was once removed from a Memphis theater, arrested and fined $5 for refusing to move from the white section of the theater to the “colored” section in the balcony. This was in 1881, nearly 75 years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Hooks, by the way, was the grandmother of Benjamin Hooks, who led the national NAACP for many years.
I also learned of Mary Virginia Cook Parrish, an early black feminist from Bowling Green. She was an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage and equality in education, employment and in the church. She was a popular writer and speaker, especially in the Baptist church. In the 1930s, when she was forbidden from joining the PTA in Louisville, she started one herself. She demanded that the then-mayor build a playground for the city’s black children who could not use the white one. Three weeks later, she had her playground. When the local YWCA turned away Parrish and 10 little black girls from its facility, she organized a new chapter, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.
There isn’t enough space in this column to share stories of all the phenomenal women in Kentucky’s history, but anyone who researches the work of Alice Dunnigan, Carol Sutton and Suzy Post is sure to be as fascinated and enlightened as I have been, learning about these women.
As we celebrate and recognize the many contributions of women everywhere during March, I am proud to follow in the footsteps of such great women as Braden, Hooks and Parrish in my work as a civil rights activist. I also celebrate the other womenfolk who have loved me and raised me in all the varied ways that women do for the people of their community. Please indulge me as I pay homage to these women by listing their names here, so that how much they mean to me will be recorded:
Carolyn Belmar, Mattie Mathis, Gerina Weathers, Lisa Gunterman, Natalie Reteneller, Pam McMicheal, Carla Wallace, Alice Wade, Mrs. Wright, Evelyn Morton, Gayelyn McElroy, Dr. Judy Green, Jessica E. Green, Attica Scott, Khalliah Collins, Rochelle Riley, Dr. Mordean Taylor-Archer, Bani Hines-Hudson, Ann Reynolds, Laura Ellis, Monica Roberts, Dawn Wilson, my aunts and cousins, Rhodie Connor, Steu’nikqua Sparrow, Dr. Kaila Story, my grandmother Cecilia Jolivet Gardner, and my phenomenal mother, Jacky L. Gardner-Sparrow.
I love you, I thank you, and I celebrate you.