Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

In 1977, recognizing the need for a uniquely focused organizational structure within their profession, three Black women historians spearheaded the move to recruit other Black women nationwide. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Eleanor Smith, and Elizabeth Parker initiated a series of meetings held in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and in two California cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The ABWH constitution outlines 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. Apart from amendments concerning dues, the constitution has undergone few revisions since its adoption.

Starting with the 1979 gathering in New York, ABWH annual meetings have been held every fall in conjunction with the convention of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH). This consolidation of meeting saves ABWH members additional travel expense. Over the years ABWH sponsored sessions have become an integral part of the ASALH convention. At the second ABWH annual meeting in New Orleans, the membership elected Terborg-Penn as the group’s first national director, a position she held for two consecutive terms. In 1980, with a view toward the organization’s continued stability and growth, Terborg-Penn and other members of the executive council instructed National Treasurer Bettye J. Gardner to incorporate ABWH under the laws of the District of Columbia. In 1980, ABWH collaborated with the Organization of American Historians and the Fund to Improve Post-Secondary Education to complete a Black History Project. The following year, ABWH members coordinated their efforts with the American Historical Association to develop a Directory of Women Historians (1981). During the summer of 1983, ABWH members organized a conference on women in the African diaspora held at Howard University. Other ABWH projects and activities are local in character and focus. The four regional areas, consisting of a far west region, a midwest region, a southern region, and an eastern region, comprise the ABWH organizational framework. The four regional directors plan mini-conferences, luncheons, and seminars for the members in their regions.

First initiated in 1981, the ABWH annual luncheon, featuring a keynote address, takes place on the afternoon of the general membership meeting and serves as an organizational fund-raiser and opportunity for networking. Publication prize awards, created in 1983 to honor the now deceased Black historian Letitia Woods Brown, recognize excellence in scholarship. The Brown Prize recipients receive their awards during the luncheon.

Through the various awards and activities, emphasizing excellence in scholarship and leadership, the ABWH remains committed to strengthening networks among historians and to its founders’ goals as set forth in its constitution.

by Janice Sumler-Edmond, Ph.D.

Sumler-Lewis, Janice. “The Association of Black Women Historians First Decade.” NWSAction (Summer 1989), and Sumler-Lewis, “The History of the Association of Black Women Historians First Decade,” with an introduction by Nancy Hewitt. Newsletter of the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession (March 1991); and Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. “A History of the Association of Black Women Historians, 1977-1981.” Truth: Special Issue (1981).

© Black Women in American: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Indiana University Press, 1993)