Updated: Sep 22
Black women chart the way with strength, resolve
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on December 17, 2020)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Sara Bishop
36 Black Leaders. SEE THEM
As Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris gave her acceptance speech, she reflected on her mother and all the "women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy...I stand on their shoulders.”
I, too, have stood on the shoulders of Black women. Growing up in a small town in the Arkansas Delta, I was raised by a single parent Black mother, Toni Walker, who remains the strongest Black woman I know. Black women were more than just leaders in my community; together they forged essential support systems for young Black children. Black women-led our homes, our schools, and our Sunday School classrooms. Just as there was no escaping their watchful but loving eyes as a kid, there is no escaping giving them enormous credit for helping young men like me survive and thrive.
Take Mrs. Erma Banks Jefferson. In fifth grade, I began receiving C’s and D’s in conduct on my report card because I had difficulty controlling my anger. My mom asked Mrs. Banks Jefferson, a retired school teacher, to intervene and help me explore and redirect my frustrations before they inflicted any more damage to my grades and future. While I can’t say I completely understood our sessions together, I know for certain that the time she took to listen and talk to me was pivotal in understanding my true self-worth as a young Black man. Her mentoring also disrupted an all too familiar pattern of the excessive discipline of Black boys in elementary school. In 2018, black boys in California made up 5% of the public school enrollment but accounted for 14% of those who were suspended from school (Romney, 2018). This is not unique to California.
With the support of my family and women like Mrs. Jefferson, I graduated high school magna cum laude and went on to attend college at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. While there, it was Mrs. Tawana Greene and Ms. Kelli Johnson who helped me and many other students seize the opportunities before us. Mrs. Greene was very instrumental in making sure that I went to class, received the tutoring that I needed, and she also made sure that I was committed to graduating on time.
Without Ms. Johnson, I would never have applied for a Masters of Higher Education program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She saw a future that I had not yet been able to imagine for myself and encouraged me to apply. Seven years later, I earned my Ph.D. and became Dr. Rickey Booker.
Black, female leadership has also been a critical source of support in my professional career. For more than 8 years, Dr. Angela Williams, Assistant Vice-Chancellor, was my direct supervisor and offered an exemplary yet tragically uncommon picture of Black executive leadership in which I could see myself reflected. Under her supervision, I was given full autonomy to lead, coordinate, and execute projects that expanded my expertise and confidence. Dr. Williams made it her business to prepare me for my next role and beyond, and I am forever grateful for her and all the other Black women who have guided my aspiring career in a Predominantly White Institution.
Black folks like me only have to look to their own lives to see the oversized role Black women occupy in our society. Nevertheless, their historic and contemporary contributions still go largely unnoticed in mainstream White culture. Even the most famous legends—women such as Madam C.J. Walker, Ida B. Wells, and Shirley Chisholm— are not well known and rarely appear in history books. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and the year that the first woman became vice-president-elect, how many of us realize that Black women have only had the right to vote for 55 years?
When Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony established the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which was supported by many White abolitionists, racial xenophobia rather than gender inclusion guided its leadership and policy goals (History, 2019). Yet women like Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ella Baker, and Mary McLeod Bethune continued to push forward the women’s suffrage movement for Black women until it was granted with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For years to follow, Black women have continued to fight and overcome voter suppression laws and discriminatory policies intended to abridge their right to vote.
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris is correct: Black women ARE the backbone of our democratic republic, reminding us that we are never truly free until ALL of us are free. They are also the backbone of our communities lifting children and families up so that all can enjoy the promises of this country. If Black Lives Matter to you, your schools, your workplaces, and your communities, it is time to elevate more Black women to positions of leadership. Mellody Hobson, one of three black Fortune 500 CEOs states that “this issue has been one where we have seen more lip service than elbow grease…words are cheap, they [corporations] are talking about this issue, now they have to back it up” (CBS This Morning, 2020).
Over the 40 years of my life, I have had extraordinary Black women to step up and step into my life in order to instruct me, guide me, and push me into the person that I am today. These women, for decades, have blazed paths with their strong leadership qualities, showing me how to lead during good times and bad, and mentoring and encouraging others when they themselves may have been discouraged. I would not be who I am today if it were not for these women and so many others who deserve to not only be seen but also acknowledged for their continued contributions to our world society.
The simple truth is this: without Black women, we ain't getting anything done. I challenge Americans to dispel the stereotypes that you hold about Black women, learn about the infinite contributions that Black women have made to society, and advocate for the Black women in your lives.
QUALITIES I LEARNED FROM THESE BLACK WOMEN
Toni Walker - God Fearing, Love, Work Ethic for Life
Brittany Booker - Endearment, Communication, Teamwork
Jimmie Lou Butler - Spirituality, Honesty, Hardwork
Bessie Davis - Focus, Patience, Respect
Erma Banks Jefferson - Anger Management, Focus, Drive
Perlie Booker - Independence, Courage, Positivity
Dr. Vanneise Collins - Leadership, Skills Building
Regina James - Gratitude, Hardwork, Optimism
Rosland Fisher - Responsibility, Commitment, Empathy
Lequieta Grayson - Active Listening, Following Instructions
Whitney Daniel - Leadership, Care, Concern
Eddie Mae Warner - Biblical lessons, Faith, Respect
Kelli Johnson - Adaptability, Serenity, Belief in Self
Tawana Greene - Focus, Drive, Intention
Jan Fisher - Financial literacy, Endurance, Commitment
Brenda Harris - Love for Music, Discipline
Perlie Booker - Perseverance, Empathy, Focus
Vivian Jackson - Family, Active Listening, Flexibility
Pamela Henderson-Jones - Compassion, Love, Sacrifice
Ena Bolden - Teamwork, Focus, Acceptance
Ella Lamby - Drive, Compassion, Committment
Dr. Angela Williams - Leadership, Project Management, Flexibility
Marylan Fisher - Gratitude, Acceptance, Compassion
Dr. Sheila Higgs Burkhalter - Mentorship, Availability, Black Family Leadership
Dr. Elecia Smith - Maximization, Leadership, Confidence
Rosemary Bell - Attentiveness, Instruction, Drive
Dr. Barbara Lofton - Trailblazer Leadership, Determination, Assertiveness
Wanda Jordan - Life Skills, Focus, Intentionality
Helen Newton - Commitment, Acceptance, Work Ethic
Dr. Joanna Newman - Leadership, Drive, Generosity
Dr. Yvette Murphy-Erby - Leadership, Guidance, Vision
Dr. Johnetta Cross Brazzell - Availability, Time Management, There is no limit to Greatness
Niketa Reed - Confidence, Leadership, Writing Skills
Dr. Claretha Hughes - Focus, Research, Writing Skills
Angela Monts - Commitment, Determination, Willingness to Learn
Dr. Aisha Kenner - Teamwork, Empathy, Flexibility
CBS This Morning. (2020, June 24). CEO Mellody Hobson on race in corporate America and how to create change. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/otbU1kq-cIg?t=52
History. (2019, April 2). The 19th Amendment | History. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9LmBgY-F5A
Romney, L. (2018). Suspension rates for black male students in California higher for foster youth, rural students. EdSource. https://edsource.org/2018/suspension-rates-for-black-male-students-in-california-higher-for-foster-youth-rural-students/593888