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Looking West

Looking West

Images courtesy of: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Frances Albrier Collection

While it is true that a unique set of actors and circumstances during the ’40s and ’50s helped influence the direction of the black freedom struggle in later years, Dr. Jessica Harris argues that, in order to fully understand the activist environment that gave rise to the Black Panther Party, we must begin the story much earlier and with the contributions of black women.

In the summer of 1976, Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library began recording the autobiographical memoirs of a group of black women 70 years of age and older. The project aimed to create a body of resource material on the lives and contributions of black women in the 20th century, especially in the years prior to the “modern Civil Rights Movement.”

Looking West 2Included among the 72 interviewees was longtime East Bay California resident Frances Albrier. At the time of her first interview in November 1977, she had been an avid opponent of racial injustice in the city of Oakland and the broader East Bay for more than 50 years. She, however, was not alone in her work but was part of a lineage of women who had been integral to the African-American push for equality and civil rights since the mid-19th century.

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Jessica Harris, this activist legacy has been eclipsed in existing studies of the black freedom struggle, hidden behind narratives of World War II migration and the rise of post-war black militancy. Harris, assistant professor of historical studies at SIUE, exposes this veiled history by placing women like Albrier at the center of her new book’s exploration of the black freedom struggle in Oakland, Calif., prior to World War II.

Unquestionably, World War II mobilization dramatically transformed the social, political and economic landscape of California’s East Bay. Employment opportunities in shipbuilding and canning manufactories, among others, attracted thousands of migrants to the area, especially African-Americans. The increase in black visibility heightened racial tension in the region—hostilities that were exacerbated with the onset of post-war deindustrialization.

African-Americans formed new organizations integral to the black freedom struggle; the most notable among these was the Black Panther Party founded in the fall of 1966. The Panthers’ calls for self-determination and power gave voice to a generation of African-Americans for whom poverty, racial segregation, police brutality and neighborhood decline constituted their daily lives. Given their importance to post-war black politics, it comes as no surprise that most scholarship written on the black freedom struggle in Oakland and the East Bay has focused on the Panther movement.

Recently, however, scholars have begun to situate the founding of the Black Panther Party within a broader timeframe of activism in the black community. While it is true that a unique set of actors and circumstances during the ’40s and ’50s helped influence the direction of the black freedom struggle in later years, Harris argues that, in order to fully understand the activist environment that gave rise to the Black Panther Party, we must begin the story much earlier and with the contributions of black women.

Whether founding their own organizations, working within “mainstream” ones or laboring alone, black women employed traditional and nontraditional methods of activism to develop their visions of change. In their challenges to inequality in the areas of labor, healthcare and education, they not only contributed to the intellectual process of strategy building, but also expanded the agenda of black freedom beyond matters of race. In the end, their individual and collective work advanced the cause of black citizenship in Oakland prior to World War II and also laid the groundwork for the movements that ensued thereafter.

In addition to making visible this local history, Harris’ project continues the work of scholars who have challenged the dominant, national narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. Her text reveals a movement that was led by women before the 1950s and beyond the geographical constraints of the South. In adding another piece to this puzzle that is the long black freedom struggle, Harris hopes that her project brings an awareness to the various ways in which black women throughout history have actively shaped and reshaped their environments in an effort to make it more just and equitable for the scope of humanity.

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