A History of the Association of Black Women Historians
ABWH was conceived in 1977 when three black women historians, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Eleanor Smith, and Eleanor Parker, recognized the need for a specially focused organization within their profession, and they set about recruiting other black women nationwide to discuss launching such a venture.
Following a series of meetings in Massachusetts and California, a steering committee convened in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February 1979 to chart the group’s future course. Darlene Clark Hine, Gloria Dickinson, Juanita Moore, and Janice Sumler-Lewis (later Sumler-Edmond) met with the founders to create a structural framework for the new organization. That framework called for an executive committee, consisting of a full complement of elected officers with a national director and four regional directors. The work of the steering committee also resulted in naming the organization and in deciding to publish a newsletter titled Truth after Sojourner Truth, the nineteenth-century black abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. The noted artist Gilbert Young created a logo for the organization.
Building upon the recommendations made by the steering committee, ABWH was officially launched in New York City in October 1979 at a meeting attended by some fifty black women. The group, authorized by Marquita L. James, to draft a constitution, which was approved at a subsequent organizational meeting held in Chicago during the spring of 1980. Later that same year, ABWH was incorporated in the District of Columbia as a nonprofit association. A nominations committee, chaired by Janet Sims-Woods, was chosen at the earlier 1979 meeting. The elected officers who formed the initial ABWH executive committee began their two-year terms in 1980. The first set of executive committee members were Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, national director; Darlene Clark Hine, director-elect; Janice Sumler-Lewis, secretary; Bettye J. Gardner, treasurer; Sharon Harley, director of publications; Cheryl Johnson (later Johnson-Odom), membership director; Juanita Moore, midwestern regional director; Sylvia M. Jacobs, southern regional director; Maria A. Brown, western regional director; and Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, parliamentarian.
In its position as the first and only professional organization to provide a network and recognition for women of African descent who were historians or students of history, ABWH formed significant organizational alliances and carried out pioneering projects. In 1980, ABWH collaborated with the Organization of American Historians and the Fund to Improve Post-Secondary Education for a black history project. The next year, a joint project between ABWH and the American Historical Association culminated in the publication of a Directory of Women Historians. In 1983, ABWH members organized a research conference titled “Women in the African Diaspora: An Interdisciplinary Perspective.” With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and under the leadership of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, the conference, held at Howard University, attracted a group of international participants for discussions on the emerging field of African Diaspora Women’s Studies.
Through the various activities and awards, emphasizing excellence in scholarship and leadership qualities, the ABWH membership remained committed to sustaining its organizational goals and to strengthening networks among historians. First initiated in 1981, the ABWH annual luncheon featured keynote speakers while serving as an organizational fund-raiser and opportunity to meet and make new contacts. Luncheon speakers came from a variety of fields, including the academy, government, the performing arts, and the judiciary. A partial list of luncheon speakers includes Mary Frances Berry, Augusta Clarke, Darlene Clark Hine, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Nell Irvin Painter, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Francille Rusan Wilson. In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton gave brief remarks at the ABWH luncheon in Detroit.
During the annual luncheon event, the ABWH membership awarded several prizes and scholarships. The publication prize, created in 1983 to honor the late black historian Letitia Woods Brown, recognized the most noteworthy book and journal article nominated during the previous twelve-month period. Established in 1987, the Lorraine Anderson Williams Leadership Award, named for the noted educator, was given to the distinguished black women leader and mentor. Two additional awards celebrate student achievement. In 1989, a collaborative effort between W. Paul Coates of the Black Classic Press (Baltimore, Maryland) and the ABWH created the Drusilla Dunjee Houston Award for a black woman graduate student in history. Houston was a teacher, journalist and lay historian. Beginning in 1995, Alton Hornsby, then a professor of history at Morehouse College, created the Lillie M. Newton Hornsby Award to honor his late mother. The Hornsby Award recognized the academic accomplishments of a black woman undergraduate.
In keeping with ABWH’s founding and mission, anniversary celebrations reflected the ABWH constitution’s four organizational goals: to establish a network among the membership; to promote black women in the profession; to disseminate information about opportunities in the field; and to make suggestions concerning research topics and repositories.
In the Twenty-First Century
During the fall of 2000, the ABWH published an anthology to celebrate its twentieth year as an organization, dedicated to promoting black women in the profession and to promoting the history of black women. The book Black Women’s History at the Intersection of Knowledge and Power, co-edited by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Janice Sumler-Edmond, contains twelve scholarly essays authored by ABWH members. It also honors the memory of Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995) and Lorraine Anderson Williams (1923-1996), two pioneering African American educators, scholars, and mentors. The association’s anniversary celebration also featured a day-long symposium held in September 2001 at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. The symposium featured research presentations by black women scholars.
The ABWH has published two other books: In Spite of the Double Drawbacks: African American Women in History and Culture (2012) and a collection of essays The True Worth of a Race: African American Women and the Struggle for Freedom (2013).
The ABWH continues to further its goal of advancing the study of black women’s history and of maintaining networks among the membership of women and men from various ethnic groups.
Sumler-Edmond, Janice. “Association of Black Women Historians, Inc.” In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. “Association of Black Women Historians.” In Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, edited by Nina Mjagkij. New York: Garland, 2001.