by Amy K. Lavender
On Monday, March 30, the University of West Georgia played host to authors Dr. Ann Short Chirhart, associate professor of history at Indiana State University; Dr. Kathleen Clark, associate professor of history at the University of Georgia; and UWG’s Dr. Steve Goodson, history department chair, as the trio discussed their contributions to the newly released “Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times – Volume 2.”
The three authors highlighted three of the women they discuss in the book during Monday’s talk, which they dubbed “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” in celebration of Women’s History Month.
“Three days in September 1906 changed Georgia history,” Dr. Chirhart said. “Beginning on the evening of September 22, white mobs tore through the city and attacked African-Americans and their businesses. At least 25 blacks were killed. Those who lived through the riot never forgot it, including two Georgia women, Lugenia Burns Hope and Vera Majette.”
Hope and Majette were two of many women on the forefront of the fight against Jim Crow laws and racial injustices. They helped their families and communities endure the hardship of the Great Depression, and their actions defined the civil rights movement. Many of their stories are marginalized or dismissed.
“As part of an effort to remedy these omissions in Georgia history and national history, and connect women’s stories with changes in Georgia, the South, and the United States, Kathleen and I coedited ‘Georgia Women – Volume II,’” Dr. Chirhart said.
“Georgia Women” reveals the lives and times of some of the South’s most remarkable and accomplished women. Some of the women are very well known – even household names, such as Alice Walker, Rosalynn Carter, and Coretta Scott King. But “Georgia Women” also brings to light many lesser-known and yet significant figures in Georgia history.
Dr. Chirhart discussed the experience of Lugenia Burns Hope, who was from Chicago but lived in Atlanta’s West End at the time of the 1906 riot.
“Hope was an African-American reformer, who had relied on her ties with white women to bring about change, but the riot convinced her that her community could no longer rely on help or friendship from whites. […] For the first time in her life,” Dr. Chirhart said, “she rejected inter-racial solutions and turned inward to the black community.”
After the riot, Hope turned to her religion to help her combat the unfair treatment of blacks in her community by creating a Neighborhood Union in 1908. This organization fought against lynchings, organized playgrounds and community health campaigns, and served as a political pressure group to receive basic services, such as garbage and sewer, in their neighborhoods.
“Using the model ‘The Neighbor as Thyself’ from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, Hope challenged black women to care about each other and admonished white, Christian women to care about blacks, to understand what being a real Christian meant,” Dr. Chirhart said.
A contemporary of Hope, Vera Majette was a young white married woman living in southeast Georgia at the time of the riot. In the days leading up to the riot, Majette chose to challenge the white majority assumptions in her state that African-American men were on a rampage raping white women and that white men needed to rise up and take control by disenfranchising black men, enforcing segregation, and protecting white women. According to Clark, Majet was of the singular opinion that white women didn’t need protecting.
“What I consider a remarkable move is that Majette published an editorial in the local Jessup newspaper titled, ‘The White Man to Blame.’ It appeared to have been her first published article,” Dr. Clark said. “Majette openly scoffed at the popular view that violence against African-Americans was necessary to protect white women. For a white woman in a small town in Southeast Georgia to be speaking out publicly and saying these things [was] fairly unique [at the time].”
Her editorial was published and republished in African-American newspapers and periodicals around the state for many years. An African-American reformer held her up as an example of a Southern white female voice taking a stand against Jim Crow laws.
Another historical figure covered in the talk, and who is featured in the second installment of “Georgia Women,” is Gertrude Ma Rainey, better known simply as “Ma Rainey.”
Ma Rainey blazed a trail for African-American women and music in the 1920s as she toured the country with her 25-person company in a bus, traveling from town to town singing the blues. She was a bit of an anomaly at the time, being a black woman on the traveling circuit singing a new brand of music. However, she blazed a trail for women and African-American culture as she brought a unique sound to mainstream audiences.
“Universality and timelessness is well worth emphasizing as it indicates why Rainey’s music remains powerful to listeners today long after the original historical and social context in which it was created has passed,” Dr. Goodson said. “As much as these songs are about black migrants from the South, the travails of working class women in the 1920s, they were also, in a broader sense, about what it is to be a human being – regardless of gender or race or time period.”
These stories and so many more are highlighted in “Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times – Volume 2.” Find your copy on Amazon.com.